Kathy McKnight couldn't wish her 97-year-old mother, Naomi Smith, a happy birthday in person, so she decided to say it with a sign.

She hired a local greeting company to help surprise Smith, who lives at Wesley Glen Retirement Community, 5155 N. High St. in Clintonville, next to Graceland. Residents currently are prohibited from having visitors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

On April 19, the eve of Smith's big day, Cardinal Yard Cards set up white plastic letters in the grass in front of Smith's window. Standing a foot-and-a-half tall, they spelled out the message, "Naomi, we love you."

McKnight, who was standing nearby, called her mother.

"I just said, 'Come look outside, you have a birthday coming up,' " said McKnight, 65, of Worthington. "I think she was happy. She was waving."

"It was lovely," Smith recalled later. "They shouldn't have done it because I hate taking other people's time, but it was nice of them to do it, and it was a beautiful day."

Wesley Glen residents still are able to enjoy walks outside on the premises, but McKnight fears her mother, a fun-loving social butterfly, will miss group activities. But if Smith has any anxiety about the global pandemic, she didn't let it show.

"There's nothing we can do about it," said Smith, who grew up in an Amish community in Sugarcreek, in northeast Ohio. "These things happen, and I guess we have to accept it when it happens. There's nothing else we can do except complain, and that doesn't help any."

Smith also has a daughter, Judy Martin, in Bowling Green, and a son, Jeff Smith, in Cincinnati. Being local, McKnight is used to making regular visits to Wesley Glen, and she's trying to adjust to the change of not being able to visit with her mom in person.

"It's just very frustrating," said McKnight, who originally wanted to throw her mother a birthday party at the retirement community. "You want to see if she's doing OK physically. When they get to be that age, the phone doesn't totally cut it. So it's just nice when I can actually see her face and see that her eyes look bright and smiling and that she's happy."

The birthday message also brightened the day of other Wesley Glen residents, including Helen Hubbard, 97, who spotted it on one of her walks.

"People are just being very ingenious in communicating," Hubbard said. "It's just wonderful to see the families trying to communicate with the people who are here. ... (The sign) was just so unusual and heartwarming."

McKnight said she had intended to get the attention of the other residents.

"I was hoping other people would enjoy it and see it and then that would make them more likely to wish (my mother) a happy birthday," she said.

Some of Smith's grandchildren and great-grandchildren also stopped by her window in the next few days, waving and holding up signs, which they left in the grass. Other relatives sent candy and additional gifts. And April 20, Smith and some family members spoke via a videoconference.

"I have much to be thankful for," Smith said. "Good family and good friends. What more could I ask?"

ethompson@dispatch.com

@miss_ethompson