It's All in the Timing 

Hanging tough at party time

Hanging tough at party time

One of the things I like best about being human is the year-round mating season. Of course, there are other advantages to human existence in general (a written language, chocolate cheesecake), and to human sexuality in particular (the female orgasm, for instance), but it’s especially nice that for us desire is not confined to one brief season. Long winter nights have their appeal, and certain drowsy summer afternoons can linger in the memory too. In fact, to the lucky human animal, any hour of any day is a chance to romp and slurp and giggle. This is nothing less than a gift from the gods.

Unfortunately, the gods do not bestow such magnificent gifts unconditionally. When they gave our species 12 long months in which to sport, the gods were playing a delicious trick on us. They know, for example, that any child conceived on a lovely afternoon in April—when the mockingbirds are singing and the air smells of damp grass—will make its appearance in the dark of a bitter January night when nothing at all is singing and a deep breath will instantly freeze the lungs. And the gods know, too, that this fragile, shivering little baby will in time become a demanding, socially active person who will want to celebrate its wintry birthday inside your house with every other child it has ever known.

Even as a new mother, I understood that the first week of January is a miserable time to observe a child’s birthday. When my son was born, I plotted to deceive him in future years about his actual date of birth. “We’ll celebrate his birthday in the springtime,” I told my husband smugly. “He’s a child; he’ll believe what we tell him. We’ll tell him Santa Claus climbs down the chimney on Christmas Eve, a fairy will give him a quarter for every tooth he puts under his pillow, and his birthday comes at the end of March.”

My visions of birthday parties held outside in temperate weather (with pretty little children dangling from the swing set, playing in the sandbox, chasing each other across the new-green grass) instantly disintegrated the moment my sister got wind of this deception. Her birthday is the day after my son’s, and she fully intended to alert him to the truth of his nativity. What’s the advantage of receiving a nephew for your birthday, she asked, if the two of you don’t get to party together every year?

I have to admit that we’ve gotten off pretty easy till now. For his first four birthdays my son was quite content with small family celebrations featuring a cake that he shared with his beaming aunt. But not this year. This year he wanted a “plain old birthday party” (as he put it), with other children, with games, with a cake just for him, and lots of presents. This year he wanted to shriek and run and laugh uncontrollably at his own party, just as he had at all the birthday parties he’d attended in the past year.

So we sat down to make a list. Veteran parents have long held that the number of children at a birthday party should equal the number of candles on the cake, but our first list included 19 must-haves. Nineteen children in a 1,500-square-foot house with an infant needing to nap—the very thought was enough to cause shingles. I managed to rule out the children in my son’s preschool class by promising to bring cupcakes and party hats to school, but that still left 12 guests—four children of our own good friends and eight neighborhood kids—plus our own little boy.

It’s true that some of these young guests are not exactly regular playmates of my son, as my husband reasonably pointed out when I showed him the guest list. But I refuse to have any part in hurting the feelings of a child, and just the thought of some little girl in the neighborhood watching forlornly out the window as gaily dressed children marched down the street carrying festive packages to a party she wasn’t invited to—well, let’s just say that image brought up an unpleasant memory or two. Thirteen children it would be.

We delivered the invitations on an afternoon when the temperature reached 60 degrees and our forsythia bushes had put out buds. Against all odds, my husband and I began to hope that we just might be able to keep this birthday party outdoors after all. Full of hubris, we planned a marshmallow and weenie roast, a treasure hunt, a game of hide-and-seek. We convinced ourselves that a January birthday party isn’t so bad in an unseasonable warm spell.

Friday morning the snow began to fall. Friday night the temperature dropped to 11 degrees. We looked at each other in despair. “Maybe some of the children won’t be able to come,” I said with the last rags of hope. “Maybe their driveways will be iced over and they won’t be able to get out.”

My husband just looked at me. “They’ll be here,” he said. “No mom in her right mind will miss two hours of free baby-sitting on an icy Saturday morning.”

Sure enough, the children arrived as reliably as the U.S mail. It was even more chaotic than we’d feared. The puppet show featuring my husband as Long John Silver fell apart when one little girl, posing as Toto in Oz, kept pulling back the curtain to expose the impostor. Our treasure hunt, moved indoors, turned into a squalling flesh pile when the birthday boy opened the trunk and revealed the booty. And my son must have set some sort of record for the number of personal injuries sustained at a party—two stepped-on fingers, a trampled toe, a knee-slammed kidney, and an elbowed eye. He hardly stopped crying long enough to blow out the candles. Later that night, when my parents called to ask him about the party, he said, “Well, I had fun, but not a lot of fun. I kept getting stepped on.”

By the time it was all over, my husband and I felt beat up too. Fifteen minutes after the last guest left, he and the children headed back to their beds for a three-hour nap. I sat in the rocking chair and gazed out the living-room window at the pure, quiet beauty of the snow on our lawn. As I sat there, savoring the stillness of my silent house, I thought I heard from far away the sound of the gods. I’d swear they were laughing.

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