Monday, February 28, 2011
Once there was a word for birthday parties: cakeandicecream. Nothing is as simple as it seems, but for some of us of a certain age, childhood parties were pretty subdued occasions compared to today's main events.
Susan - most of us had names like Susan, Mary, and Cindy back then; I did not know a Caitlin or Kristen until years later - always invited the neighbor children for cake and ice cream on birthdays. Her family had the first color television in town since they owned the RCA/Zenith store. I remember the week it arrived. We traipsed across the yard between us on the hour to watch the NBC peacock spread his glorious and previously black and white wings. For birthdays we walked over and sat at their Formica dinette for her mother's homemade caramel cake, vanilla ice cream and Hawaiian Punch. I can hardly recall a party without children bearing red "got punch?" mustaches, come to think of it.
Sometimes we played Pin the Tail on the Donkey or Red Rover or Simon Says. We played. That's it. We called it fun.
Once a mom booked a local teenager who knew magic tricks to come and pull scarves out of his sleeve and make his magic wand go limp in the hand of a certain unsuspecting and embarrassed party guest. There were never any rental tables and chairs, no balloon arches, no rent-a-clowns or inflated jumping castles. Funny, we never thought of ourselves as disadvantaged. Life in a small town was simple that way.
The delight of riding bikes everywhere we went - safely and all over town - was common to anyone who had a bike. The cross section of friends from town or from the country was a blessing we took for granted as well. It often works that way with our blessings: we fail to recognize the value of what we have been given until much later.
The ramping up of children's activities four decades later has brought big changes to the birthday scene. Birthday shindigs have become major events spawning party specialists to handle the myriad of details ensuring that the honoree has what we used to call a good time.
I am not criticizing a good party; I thoroughly enjoyed each one in our family. Some parties bombed (the scavenger hunt where no one was home in the neighborhood to answer the doorbells one Saturday morning), and some were surprise hits (citing the tiny half bath papered in aluminum foil with a blue light bulb and doubling as a rocket ship). But I hear that they have upped the ante significantly in the ensuing years after my day with elaborate arrangements far eclipsing backyard cake and ice cream.
Many young moms have lamented the prevailing state of partydom, saying the favor their child received cost more than the gift given the birthday child. I read of one recent two year old's party, amusingly described as retro, where they spread an elaborate candy and cookie bar serving 'milk shots' for youngsters, custom water bottles and soft drink labels with the monogram of the birthday boy, and signature martinis for all the moms. Not a Hawaiian Punch can in sight. I had to smile. Retro? Seriously?
Parties are big business. They may escalate much more upwardly mobile in direct proportion to the child's age, which raises the question of what do you do at 13 or 16 if you start out with a red carpet worthy event at age 4? Resisting the whirling draw of the children's party vortex requires facing adult peer pressure, a circumstance one does not leave behind in adolescence. We try to teach our children to just say 'no,' yet parents can find this hard to do to our own children. The goal of parenting for many is simply wanting children to be happy.
Short-sighted and anemic, happiness as an end goal will not long endure when circumstances change - and they will - leaving us scrambling for new and improved ways to up the happiness quotient. Better, I think, to seek contentment and joy in the long haul of life. There are countless teachable moments we share with one another to express love and gratitude with whatever we have. Have we forgotten how to find joy in simplicity?
Today's young moms are probably duly impressed with the dizzying details of the elaborate party scene, but it leaves me wistful. And I wonder if some of the kids would just as soon play in a big TV box with their friends in the back yard.
Oh, wait. You cannot play in a TV box anymore.