BIG CYPRESS — Sixty never looked younger than when seven Big Cypress childhood girlfriends hula danced before a crowd Jan. 23 to celebrate 420 collective years of happy birthdays.
With shimmying hips and gracefully raised arms in the barn at the Junior Cypress Rodeo Arena grounds, they sent a message amid Hawaiian luau decorations that life is full of surprises even after six decades of good living.
“We’re still so young at heart,” said Linda Beletso about the seven pals who grew up together and are still best friends. “But this might be the only time you will ever want to see seven 60-year-old ladies get lei’d.”
The party erupted in laughter as Beletso, Mary Jene Koenes and the other birthday honorees Jeannette Cypress, Jennie Martinez, Deloris Jimmie Alvarez, Susie Jumper and Hannah Billie each received Hawaiian flower leis to start the soiree.
Entertainment by No Ka Oi Productions provided ukulele music and Polynesian indigenous dancing. Pineapples and flowers decked the tables and tiki torches set the stage for about 100 guests dressed in luau garb.
“If it weren’t for the Creator, we would not be here today for you or each other,” Koenes told the crowd. She said the party idea came from Beletso whose biological sisters passed away in recent years. Koenes said the group embraced the opportunity to celebrate “sisters in life.”
Beletso called on the “sisters” to take center stage: first Cypress, whom she deemed “my partner in crime,” and the others, whom she dubbed “the 60s babes.” Cypress warned guests: “If you made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight – forget about it tonight.”
The barbecue meal featured ribs, chicken and sides with hints of Polynesian spices.
A three-tiered cake was layered in strawberries, bananas and pineapples.
Pastor Josh Leadingfox, of Immokalee First Seminole Baptist Church, gave a blessing and a nod to the youthfulness of the birthday ladies.
“You have smiles that are contagious. Maybe for you it’s not sweet 16 anymore, but it’s definitely the sweet 60s,” Leadingfox said. He then asked the Creator to “rain blessings upon them” and provide a fun-filled event.
“Your word says laughter is good medicine, Lord. Let that happen to us tonight,” Leadingfox prayed – which some could surmise led to his win later in a hilarious all-male hula contest.
Born between the last months of 1955 and the first half of 1956, the “60s babes” consist of three Panthers, and one each of Otter, Big Town and Wind clans, who are forever friends. They have loved and supported each other as far back as their memories allow, Koenes said.
One summer, when the group was 13 or 14, they worked on horseback in the Tribe’s cattle pastures as the first all-girl cow crew. The gang was never afraid of hard work – they toiled equally hard at harvesting tomato fields.
All Ahfachkee School kids, their lives took slightly different paths as their teen years ushered in high school days and their early 20s brought college and motherhood. Combined, they raised 23 children. Now, the “60s babes” also boast 53 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Cypress alone has 22 grandchildren.
But on the night of the birthday extravaganza they revealed one deeply shared secret: Weeks before the party night, they perpetrated a ruse – a downright lie – against their husbands, children and even grandchildren. For two months, the gang told their families they had to attend “meetings” but instead, they slipped off to Weston to practice hula moves with a Polynesian dance instructor.
Even Hannah Billie, who shattered her knee while driving her three-wheeled Harley Davidson motorcycle a few months ago, got in on the action, albeit seated in a chair with a cane by her side.
“I will be back on the bike in no time. Guaranteed,” said Billie, aka “G-Mom.” She joked that her friends should all buy motorcycles and black leather jackets. “We’ll call ourselves the Hog Mas.”
Cypress said the friends will continue to support each other through thick and thin and into old age when health will likely fail them. Her feeling is shared.
“We love each other like sisters so we will always be connected but whenever we’re together we feel like we’re still kids,” Koenes said.