Whether or not Eloise Hawthorne will ever actually nail down her family lineage to the Howards of Castle Howard, Yorkshire, England, doesn’t matter much to her Lake Highlands “girlfriends.” The six spirited seniors have been throwing elaborate neighborhood birthday parties for each other for years, and it was time to make Eloise feel like Queen for a Day.

“Next to family, I do believe your friends are the most important people in your life,” says party master Jo Haptonstall. “Especially as you get older. When you get old, you really need friends. It’s just a joy; it adds a great dimension in your life.”

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The Girlfriends / Haptonstall, Hawthorne, Martha Denoy, Evelyn Martin, Jean Adwan and May Jordan, otherwise known as The Girlfriends, decided that this year they would celebrate Eloise’s birthday with a theme based upon her presumed lineage.

Spearheaded by Haptonstall, ‘the planner’, as Hawthorne refers to her, the friends brought an English Garden Tea party to Hawthorne’s living room, where she had been confined to a hospital bed after breaking her leg in a fall. The accidents of fate that brought the six together were somewhat happier, and the reasons they remained friends define camaraderie.

“I guess it was about 20 years ago that I met Eloise,” Haptonstall recalls.

“She (Haptonstall) was the Realtor I got to find us this house.” Hawthorne says. “And Evelyn and May go to the First Baptist Church downtown; Martha is Jo’s third cousin who I knew because we kind of ran around together.”

“She is so appreciative of every little thing you do for her,” Haptonstall says of Hawthorne, although these birthday parties they throw for one another are no small endeavor.

The five party givers worked around Hawthorne, decorating her hospital bed with purple colored silk fabric and toulle puffs, and draping the tea table with imported English lace cloth.

No detail was overlooked for the Tea Party theme, among them: chocolate truffles from England, Ahmad Tea No. 1, an assortment of English cheeses, crab/cucumber sandwiches, and cookies, candies and chocolate covered strawberries bought in Corsicana (where Her Majesty the Queen of England shops herself). Throw pillows declaring the presence of the King and Queen of the House were presented to Hawthorne and her husband, James, along with jeweled crowns for everyone and a court jester to boot (Haptonstall).

“Even what I thought…” Hawthorne tries to explain, “I never imagined it that elaborate or to that extent. Jo just knows how to throw a party.”

The Howards / The Howards that Hawthorne has been trying to find a family connection to are one of England’s oldest families, inhabiting an 18th century Yorkshire castle so magnificent it was the filming site of Brideshead Revisited starring Laurence Olivier.

Eloise Hawthorne, nee Broyhill, is originally from North Carolina, a place where many of the country’s earliest emigrating families settled.

“Howard was my mother’s family. We’ve been researching it for a long time,” Hawthorne says.

“After many years of research by several family members, including myself and a cousin who was with the Archives Department of the State of North Carolina, we’ve come to the conclusion that our family’s North Carolina and English ancestors were likely related to the Howards of the Castle Howard.”

Ten generations of Howards have lived continuously in the castle ever since it was built by Chas. Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle in 1730. In November 1940, a fire destroyed the southeast wing and the dome, consuming nearly 20 rooms in all. As time and money have permitted, gradual restoration of the home has been ongoing since 1960.

“We can claim the castle as an ancestral home, and we do. Can we go by and spend the weekend?” she asks, shaking her head sideways in response and adding, “Now, I talked with one of the staff members over there recently and told him that my husband and I were going to have our 50th anniversary next year and when we come, can we visit with them, and he said yes.”

The Castle Howard has been open to the public for viewing and tours since 1952, and is presently under the guidance of the Nicholas and Simon Howard. Every year nearly 200,000 people pass through its doors.

“The gentleman who lives there now, Simon Howard, sent me a signed book about the castle,” Hawthorne says.

“Our own family’s Howard coat of arms hangs proudly in our home’s entry, along with a picture of the ancestral home. There is a general coat of arms that represents the entire Howard clan, however the center shield of the coat of arms of each Howard family’s history is for that particular family only.

“We have not tied down the connection completely,” she says. “We would have to hire someone to connect the dots because there are a lot of us in the family.”

Dots Already Connected / Luckily, Hawthorne doesn’t have to look far or give much thought to her Lake Highlands lineage. They’re the kind of family who lines up around your leg cast wearing party hats.

Three of the six girlfriends are widowers, three have husbands who are still alive. But the husbands don’t participate, Hawthorne confirms; “This is just a girlfriend thing.”

“I am very fortunate to have friends like these,” she says. “The whole nine months (in bed), they have not missed a beat. I have other friends that have been great, but this is just a different circle that packs around together and enjoys each other’s company.”

Each year as the birthdays roll around, these women aren’t afraid to celebrate. On the contrary, each birthday is marked in such a memorable fashion that they have begun to keep a scrapbook listing all of the details just so future generations will know how much fun they’ve had together.

Ready for Takeoff / Last year, for Jordan’s birthday, the girls went on a “trip” to Paris.

“We fixed up Jean’s entry like an airport,” Haptonstall says, “had (Jean) in a uniform, and set up chairs with seat belts in the entry hall, on each side. I was the hostess inside the plane, and when we were about to take off, we got in my car and I took them to a new tearoom in Dallas.”

The girlfriends are now awaiting Hawthorne’s recovery (she is still in the hospital bed, and learning how to walk again), but once she’s better, they already have plans.

“Just say go, we’d go anywhere. We are not used to being cooped up,” Hawthorne says.

In the meantime, they are getting busy planning Jean Adwan’s upcoming November birthday celebration.

“I wrote May a note this week and told her an idea I had for the invitation… .” Haptonstall begins.

Her husband says: “I wish you’d give up parties and start drinking or gambling. It’d be easier on the nerves.”