On Jan. 7, Willie Mae Simpson of Richburg in Chester County celebrated her 50th birthday, but the celebration wasn’t complete.
Sure, there was cake. There were gifts, love and hugs. There were grandchildren and joy.
But Simpson’s oldest of three daughters, Technical Sgt. Erika Simpson-Jones – after two tours in Afghanistan in the U.S. Air Force – was still at an air base in England.
“The present I wanted the most was having my daughter home,” said Willa Mae Simpson. “A year and four months I haven’t seen her. I miss her so much. But I didn’t get it.”
But Tuesday night at Rock Hill’s Olive Garden restaurant, Willie Mae Simpson’s birthday wish came true.
Through the door, carrying birthday balloons and flowers and more than all else a smile that lit up the room, daughter Erika strode through to a rear table.
“Momma – it’s me!” Erika said.
Willie Mae Simpson didn’t know if she was dreaming, so she did what mothers all over the world have done forever. She grabbed on and hugged tight.
“It is you!” Willie Mae Simpson said. “You – you got me!”
Simpson the mother was miffed for maybe a second – and then the fact that she had been sneaked up on from across the Atlantic Ocean didn’t matter one bit.
Her daughter gave a hug that spanned oceans. Mom hugged back twice as tight. Family and friends and shocked diners looked on.
The intercontinental surprise took three weeks to plan and scheme, with Sgt. Simpson-Jones and her husband, Leonard, telling only one of her younger sisters so that the secret of a two-week leave from the military didn’t leak out.
“I knew but it wasn’t easy keeping it from our mother,” said sister Shalana Simpson. “She’s a mother. She knows things.”
The plot required getting her mother to the restaurant with others, under subterfuge. Good thing that Sgt. Simpson-Jones has 14 years in the military under her belt with tours in Turkey, Korea and Japan, along with those two stretches in Afghanistan. During one of her deployments to Afghanistan, she was on the ground less than an hour when a nearby area was mortared.
She is not only tough and savvy, Sgt. Simpson-Jones is a military police officer who now is a CSI investigator for the Air Force.
“I know how a plan has to go to work,” Simpson-Jones said with a grin.
Her flight from London didn’t arrive until after 4 p.m. Tuesday, so the hustle to make the surprise come together was tough. But by the time the family sat down to eat in Rock Hill, Simpson-Jones was waiting in the parking lot.
The Olive Garden staff was thrilled and ready to burst with the secret, but kept their lips sealed. And finally, there in the restaurant, Willie Mae Simpson found that the best birthday gift in the world didn’t come in a box or tied with ribbons.
It came with a smile and a hug and a daughter who tried not to cry at how much she loves her mother who has helped her find so much success in her life.
“My daughter came home all the way from England and surprised me,” Willie Mae Simpson said. “This is the best birthday ever!”