Living with one of life’s quirks

Ilma Shergold is a February 29 baby.

Ilma Shergold, the grandmother, is younger than her grandsons. Go figure.

The boys are aged 25,2 6 and 30, or thereabouts, and Ilma, the grandmother, is only just turning 21.

“They say: ‘wow Nanna, we will have to get out Dad’s yard glass for you’.”

It seems the yard glass, one yard long and holding two-and-a-half imperial pints of beer, is a bit of a 21st tradition in this family. Dad and the boys all had a glug to celebrate their rite of passage.

“I couldn’t drink it even filled with water,” says Ilma.

But all this doesn’t explain how the grandmother Ilma is younger than the grandsons. Well, the fact is, she is and she isn’t. It’s a quirk of the calendar.

Ilma Joan Shergold was born on February 29, 1936.

She is a quirk of the Gregorian calendar. She was a Leap Year baby, born on that one day added to the calendar every four years – she is a ‘leaper’, a ‘leapster’ or a ‘leapling’ as they are known in some parts.

So, in effect, Ilma has a real birthday only once every four years. And because 2020 is a leap year, she turns 21 on the 29th of this month. In fact, she is turning 84 and prefers it that way. “I wouldn’t want to be 21 again. Because I really enjoy life and appreciate my health and I think that is the main thing.”

And she believes laughing is the medicine.

Ilma is a special girl, a bit of a rarity. While there’s one in 365 chances of being born on any particular day of the year, being born on Leap Day is a one in 1461 chance.

It’s rarer than being born with 11 fingers and 11 toes, which is one in 500. And numerically, she is part of a fairly exclusive global club. There are only 4 million people worldwide who share the Leap Day birthday.

When Ilma was born at the Garthowen private maternity hospital, the Leap Day event made the local newspaper.

Her celebrity continues. She’s back in the news 84 years later and insists she is not enjoying it. “I would rather go stand in the corner.”

Ilma says she has never missed out. “We lived on a farm at Karamu and every four years my mother would have a party for me. In between times we would celebrate on February 28. Not March 1 because I was a February baby.”

Late husband Jack delivered every year as well. There was a gift every February 28. “He reckoned it was the reason we got married. We married on St Patricks Day and my birthday was February 29. Two dates he could never possibly forget.”

Why do we have Leap Year? Why do we add an extra day to the calendar every four days?

Because it takes slightly longer than 365 days for Earth to orbit the sun - 365.24219 days in fact. So we add a day to harmonise with the solar year. The adjustment prevents the seasons from shifting over time, or we might end up with Christmas in June or winter in December.

Her name has presented more life problems for Ilma than her birthday. “I have had to keep explaining what looks like two Ls at the beginning of my name.” That’s Ilma with an ‘I’ , not Alva nor Alma. So she underscores the L to assist people.

However there was one occasion when she was applying for an official document like a passport or drivers licence when she was questioned about her birth date.

“She said that can’t be right because February doesn’t have a 29th – the computer drop box didn’t go that far. I put her right and she was very understanding.”

So on February 29, when this 84-year-old finally gets the key of the door – symbolic of being considered old enough to come and go as you please – Ilma will remember her Dad and rue the fact she can’t call in a promise.

“He always said he would buy me a car for my 21st birthday.” She will finally have reached that milestone, but still no cigar, no car. The memory will have to serve.

The Weekend Sun wishes you a happy birthday on the 29th Ilma. Trust they will dust off the yard glass for you.      

Subscribe to our weekly Newsletter