Picking the cake

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, March 1, 2019


Growing up, we didn’t have birthday parties. Not the kind with party hats and streamers and balloons — where you and all your little banshee friends tore up the house while the adults looked on indulgently. I don’t remember going to birthday parties at all, in fact, or having cupcakes at school, let alone helium balloons, which seemed about as farfetched as being in the circus, the only place I knew of where one actually had access to such things.

Years later, when I saw home movies of my daughter Celine’s father, Gary, at the birthday parties his parents threw, I actually felt indignation rising at what was so obviously an utterly impoverished childhood in comparison. The old Super 8 movies showed full-on cowboys and Indians birthday parties, parents laughing, participating in shoot-outs and such. It was the ’60s, OK? Almost baffling in its political incorrectness. Yeah, the adults were busy having their own party: early cocktails, smoking and passing that movie camera around to get the whole thing recorded in the warm flicker of 8mm film.

Looking back, I wondered if the differences could be explained by comparing East Coast to West, or WASP to Catholic families; or if it was simply a matter of the social norms of the time and the neighborhood. We were not by any means impoverished; in fact, I grew up believing we had everything we could ever need. I do remember being able to pick the kind of cake I wanted and my family singing happy birthday, the warmth and light of candles near my face. I remember what a big deal it was to pick that cake.

Nevertheless, fast forward a bunch of years, when I have my own child and find myself getting really worked up about these birthday parties that never seem to stop, one after another, year after year! Six months in advance, I am stressing about themes, colors, activities and the bleeping goodie bags, stuck in the throes of some not-good-feeling complex that has to do with all the parties I now realize I never had. Oh, she’ll have birthday parties, all right; she will have parties she’ll never forget. (Of course, everything is relative. Other kids will have fire trucks and fieldtrips and entire restaurants. But no one will ever say I didn’t put energy into those birthday parties.)

The runaway birthday train probably started with my mom buying a store bought cake for my one-year-old — decorated with four cones filled with frosting — and then putting it in front of her “to see what she’d do.” Whaaaaah? This was a kid who had had zero sugar. Zero. So. By the time she was four, in 1997, I’d boarded that runaway train and strapped myself in. We had the Rocky Mountain Ark over, Melissa Margetts and a bunch of her animals traipsing into the house and all the kids taking turns to hold the baby river otter, the maimed turkey vulture, to herd the chicks, to watch a goat clop through the house with a diaper on. And then came the fawn — without a diaper — scattering pellets on the floor as all the moms watched, transfixed by the scene. Ding-ding! Winner!

Hard to live up to that one, but we tried. We had the rainbow party, the carnival party, the amusement park party, the crafts party (her least favorite) and the solve-a-mystery party. In my mind’s eye, I see my daughter Celine’s little face at each of these events assessing whether she is having fun, whether others are having fun, whether or not everything is fair, whether she feels good at the center of all the attention — or not.

In contrast, I think of her racing home one day at the age of 5 or 6 from her friend’s house — she was wearing a bandana on her head — and breathlessly explained that a group of four of them had been pretending to be poor girls and all they had to eat was a single hardboiled egg and a glass of water each. This ingenious mother (I’ll let you guess which German friend) had given them a lesson of a different kind: how it feels to be grateful for something exceedingly simple when you are not only literally hungry, but hungry from having climbed the highest peaks of the imagination.

In March, my birthday month, I try to feel the sweetness of glowing like the sun for 24 hours, everything and everyone in orbit around me as life fizzes and fusions in the vortex of being human. And I think of all the kids and grown-ups I’ve known (including my own and me), who in a moment of receiving too much lose much of the feeling of enough. Of parents, particularly, trying to meet expectations, exceed expectations, almost as if we are in fear of their being disappointed.

One can always add deer pellets to any party for comic relief! But what we really want for ourselves and our children is that simple, wide-open feeling on your birthday of picking the cake, and then actually getting to eat it, too.

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