My parents would throw one, standard-issue birthday party. Not one party a year; one party period. Usually, this was the fifth birthday. Entire classes were invited to our house to run around in our large backyard, break a piñata, eat cake, and open gifts. After the last guest left, the streamers were taken down, the balloons were popped, and the birthday kid was officially done with birthday parties for the rest of his or her time while living at my parents’ house. Hopefully they enjoyed it because there was no chance another party would be thrown in his or her honor until it could be paid for with his or her own damn money.
To be fair to all twelve of the kids, each child should've received the same treatment. There shouldn’t have been an exception to the rule since any deviation from this plan would send the message that some sibling was less than the others. There was, however, one child for whom they made an exception. That one child was me, the youngest of the twelve kids. I didn’t have one birthday party when I was five. I didn’t have that one celebration that helped me feel for just one day that I was unique; that I stood apart from the rest of my family as an individual.
I didn’t have that special party on my fifth birthday because I had a birthday party every year when I was a child. These celebrations were big affairs where I invited every kid in my class and kids from the neighborhood. Clowns and magicians would perform for my friends and I. Face painters would decorate our little cheeks with hearts and butterflies while we imagined the sweetness of gentle chocolate buttercream and cake melting on our tongues.
My mom even indulged my desire to be utterly picky about my cake whereas she would pick out the cake she thought my siblings might like on their birthdays. If they didn’t like it, there was nothing to be done about it. However, a lot of deliberation went into my birthday cakes.
I chose my birthday cake from Stanlees, a bakery in the center of town that we’d drive by every day. Watching the bright orange, arched entranceway pass by my window always got me to thinking about their frosting, which was thick and buttery without leaving a coat of fat in your mouth. (It’s a frosting I haven’t found anywhere else, the closest being a cake from Albertsons). A few days before the party, my mom would bring me to the bakery where I would carefully page through the plastic sleeved binder to pick out my perfect design. My mom would sit by patiently as I slowly weighed my options.
Most often, my mom would indulge my choice of cake decorations. The only year she refused was the one where I wanted the one with a naked baby on it. She said “no,” which is a decision I assumed she made because she thought the cake was too immature for me. I didn’t learn until years later that the baby was a naked, big-breasted woman laying above a banner that read “Welcome Home, Soldier.” (If it were my kids, I would allow them to get that cake just for the sake of the pictures).
My birthdays were more significant than one day. It needed to span the entire month. February eventually became known as my birthday month. I would have a birthday party with just my family, a birthday party with friends, birthday dinner with my family, and then I would discuss the details of my birthday every other day of the month. I'd spend the days after my birthday crying and feeling so sad for myself. I imagine all my siblings were seething in the background, unable to fathom why I had so many celebrations. I don’t know why I did either, but I was more than happy to accept them.
I now am a parent with two kids who live for their birthdays, and it feels like karma. Every year, despite me resolving to keep it simple and only invite two of their friends over for a big old nothing of a party, I end up allowing it to get bigger and bigger. The guilt starts creeping in as I think about how many birthday parties I had gotten. I’d be pretty selfish if I didn’t attempt to do the same for them. They, also, wear me down until I have no energy to resist the party.
This year, Darla, whose birthday is the beginning of March, began talking about her birthday on December 26th.
“Mommy,” Darla says as she walks into the kitchen where I’m washing dishes. “Can I go to Disneyland for my birthday?”
“You already said you wanted to have friends over for pizza and a movie,” I say, struggling to suppress a sigh. The wrapping paper from Christmas still lay in a sloppy pile in the hallway. Most of her gifts were still in their packaging. “You’re only allowed one birthday party.”
“Well then,” she said, “I want to make it a Disneyland party.”
“Darla, I can’t do this,” I said. “Christmas isn’t even really over yet. I can’t talk about your birthday party yet.”
She let the conversation stand that day, but she has come back with more requests every day since then. So far, she’s vacillated between wanting a Chuck E Cheese birthday (which I always support), a movie birthday, and a Disney birthday. She, also, has made a list of birthday gift ideas that includes every item on display at every kiosk in the mall (a steamer, a squishy ball, and a wooden plaque are among her top choices). We still have two more months left, and I’m pretty sure she’ll eventually add a hair straightener and a year supply of Accutane by the time her birthday comes.
I can’t say where my irritation about discussing her birthday stems from. Maybe it’s because there’s only so much involved in a birthday, that two months of conversations about it is incredibly tedious and boring. I can’t spend hundreds of hours contemplating balloon colors and designs. Or, maybe I can’t abide another person stealing my thunder and dominating the birthday conversation so close to my own.