Home on the Range

A few short hours after the last party guest had departed — face painted, goodie bag and piñata sack in hand, sweaty, satiated, and blood sugar plummeting — my just-turned-5-year-old daughter Dale announced: “Mom, I can barely remember my birthday party anymore!”

Ouch. I quelled my first impulse, to quote a little Shakespeare (“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / to have a thankless child”), because who can really blame the self-centered sprite for having no idea how many trips to Target, H-E-B, the piñata shop — or how many phone calls and swipes of the debit card — went into throwing her little two-hour front-yard soiree. Besides, I’m no better — I’ve been trying to summon memories of my own earliest parties, and it’s just a blur of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and noisy demands for cake. The first birthday that really stands out was my 12th, when my parents took five friends and me to dinner at a “real” restaurant and then to the movie I was dying to see, Kramer Vs. Kramer.

As parents of every generation seem to enjoy lamenting, things were simpler back in the day, weren’t they? If there were elaborately themed birthday parties, I don’t remember attending any. Were parents compelled to invite their child’s whole preschool class to spare hurt feelings? Perhaps, but I can’t be sure since I never went to preschool. (In the good ole days, kindergarten was all the preparation you needed for “real school,” and chasing butterflies in the backyard was adequate prep for kinder.) Did our folks worry about how much to budget per goodie bag — and how many they should keep on reserve for uninvited siblings and other surprise guests? No, those pernicious bags were then known as “favors” and took the form of a party hat and maybe a noisemaker. Bouncy castles, pony rides, and clowns were the stuff of carnivals and circuses — if you did have a magician, it was most likely the birthday child’s oily older brother fumbling a few lame card tricks. And if you were contemplating going the pool-party route, you didn’t feel the need to hire a lifeguard and retain a lawyer. Simpler times, indeed.

Not that I have a problem with shelling out for a couple of flashy attractions if it means the party will essentially be a turnkey operation. On Dale’s fourth birthday — her first real party, attended by actual children instead of just a few boozy, camera-wielding adults — I rented a bouncy castle and a couple of ponies. I justified the expense (which was surprisingly reasonable) because you can’t put a price on something that will spare you the anxiety of entertaining a tough crowd of 15 to 20 preschoolers with clever games, crafts, and treasure hunts.

Of course, renting a bouncy castle doesn’t mean it will actually arrive in time to spare you some nail-biting, as evidenced by Dale’s fifth birthday party, when the sheepish bouncy man arrived on the heels of the first guests. Luckily, the face-painter was punctual — and wildly popular. The same kids who regularly melt down in supermarket checkout lines seemed oddly content to sit and wait for their turn. Like peasants on a bread line, nothing would induce them to relinquish their places — not the finally erected Disney Princess bouncy castle nor the promise that every child was guaranteed a turn nor the fact that humidity coupled with the irresistible urge to paw at one’s face would soon reduce the flowers on their cheeks to an unappetizing sludge. This only confirmed what I’d suspected all along: Kids are weird, and birthday parties are for indulging their weirdnesses. And that seems fair since we, as parents, spend the rest of the time trying to quash kids’ most whimsical enterprises — forcing them to wear underpants, not allowing them to ride the dog, etc. Let them have this day to let their freak flags fly.

Still, I’ve tried to steer Dale toward the kind of birthday party that would make me happiest — the kind where somebody else is in charge. But she, homebody to the core, will not even consider celebrating at a gym or Gymboree, Build-a Bear or bouncy wonderland. For her sixth birthday, she’s planning another face-painting party in our front yard, and for her seventh, the same deal, but in the back. As long as she doesn’t request clowns, I’ll continue to indulge her whims. I know I’ve only got a few years before I’ll be hosting slumber
parties and chaperoning trips to High School Musical 12.

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