Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, a woman from the 19th century, once said she'd rather be mother of a president than president. The daughter of a Boston politician and the mother of a five-generation American political dynasty has seen her wish fulfilled in her 100 years.

At the celebration of the centenary of her birth yesterday, her only surviving son, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, described her this way: "In the chaos of our household, she was the quiet epicenter of the storm, the anchor of our family, the safe harbor to which we always came -- or as Mother said, the shadow in all our pictures because she was taking them."

Rose Kennedy went to a family Mass yesterday morning in the family enclave in Hyannis Port, Reuter reported. She appeared only briefly at the party, however, being too frail to do much more than sit upstairs in her wheelchair. Sen. Kennedy told the Associated Press that his mother said a few days ago, "I'm like old wine -- they don't bring me out very often, but I'm well preserved."

Still, perhaps she peered through the curtains of her window at the 370 guests come to the commemoration, a week before her real birthday.

Four of her surviving five children, and many of her 28 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren were there -- likely the largest gathering of the clan since Robert Kennedy's funeral in 1968.

Ted Kennedy said his mother's greatest birthday present was to see her inspiration in the "extraordinary, innovative, creative and touching programs" of her grandchildren.

Roses -- all the way for her name's sake -- decorated the cake, the tablecloths, the huge portrait of Rose Kennedy at 90 that dominated the scene, the small rose-framed picture of the honoree at each place setting. An 18-minute movie of her life was shown at the lunch under a tent in the lawn of the family compound on Cape Cod. George Bush sent one of his usual handwritten notes. Maureen McGovern sang the old Irish rose songs.

Doubtless Rose Kennedy was agreeable that the cloudy day's commotion promoted the presentation of the 1990 Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation Awards in Mental Retardation for science and service: to Paul Wehman, of Virginia Commonwealth University, and Marty Wyngaarden Krauss, of Brandeis University; Lowell P. Weicker Jr., the former Connecticut senator; Edward Zigler, of Yale University; and the Kingsley family, of Chappaqua, N.Y. Gold medals of the first Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Leadership Awards in the field of retardation were also to be awarded.

Three of her daughters, all attending yesterday, have added good works to their mother's example of a life devoted to family and politics: Eunice Kennedy Shriver, at 69, the executive vice president of the foundation honoring her brother Robert; and Patricia Kennedy Lawford and Jean Kennedy Smith, the sisters whose tea parties were once credited by Henry Cabot Lodge as winning an election.

Among others come to do Rose Kennedy honor, according to the Associated Press: Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert; and Joan Kennedy, former wife of Ted Kennedy. Grandchildren attending were Caroline Kennedy and her brother, John Jr. (their mother, Jacqueline Onassis, did not attend); Chris Kennedy, director of a Chicago model preschool program integrating children of varying capabilities; Robert Kennedy Jr., who works with a home for teenage mothers and the elderly; and TV reporter Maria Shriver, with her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and their baby daughter, Katherine, dressed to cheer in a red polka-dot playsuit and red shoes.

Among Kennedy friends attending were humor columnist Art Buchwald; historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; Massachusetts Gov. and former presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis and his wife, Kitty; Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos; actor Tom Hulce; champion skier Billy Kidd, who helps with the Kennedy-sponsored Special Olympics; and television host Robert MacNeil, who emceed the program.

If there were ghosts of tragedies amid visions of triumphs, they did not walk through the festivities. Though who could forget the violent deaths of four of her children: Joseph F. Kennedy, a naval air hero, killed in World War II; John F. Kennedy, president of the United States, assassinated; Robert Kennedy, senator, former attorney general, contender for the presidency, assassinated; Kathleen Kennedy, killed in a plane crash; a grandson, David Kennedy, dead of a drug overdose. Rosemary, her eldest daughter, born mentally disabled, became the victim of a failed lobotomy, and now lives in a Wisconsin nursing facility. And not to forget the young woman, a friend of Ted Kennedy, drowned at Chappaquiddick.

Next Sunday -- proclaimed by George Bush as Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Family Appreciation Day -- a smaller group will gather to toast their revered elder with a hundred candles, a thousand wishes and a million memories.