I am a second-generation mother who hates birthday parties; that is to say, much as my mother clearly didn’t relish having parties on her children’s birthdays, I too don’t much like holding birthday parties. But I have done it annually since 2009 and I’ve only let it make me totally psychotic a couple of times. It was nice when she was very young: we could invite whoever we wanted, babies can’t do too much damage to anything (and we didn’t have too much stuff to worry about damaging) and we could serve our guests bourbon punch and cupcakes and feel like we’d done a good job.
There were a couple of years when I made myself nuts trying to bake beautiful birthday cakes. The last year I did this, I pulled off a butterfly cake which was beautiful primarily because I bought these sugar-paper butterflies online — i.e., the cake was nice but the “butterfly” aspect of things was entirely out of my control — but the cake was, absolutely, a complete success. It was a four-layer cake with a cream cheese frosting and everyone loved it. I was very pleased with myself and had high hopes for how I’d handle cakes in years to come.
The year my daughter turned seven, however, her birthday fell during Passover, and because I refuse to do a kosher-for-Passover birthday cake (I mean, who are we kidding), we opted to do ice cream sundaes for the Big Event. We purchased tubs of good ice cream and I made hot fudge sauce and we bought cans of Reddi-Wip, an item my daughter had never before encountered. We had bowls of toppings — little M&Ms, Sno-Caps, Maraschino cherries. One of the mothers, attending the party with her daughter, volunteered to help squirt the Reddi-Wip, which I appreciated — we really had our hands full — and when all was said and done, the kids seemed happy and there was only one smear of hot fudge on the dining room wall.
This year, I asked my daughter what kind of cake she’d want on her birthday (since it’s weeks yet until Passover, so we could do whatever she wanted), and she asked to do ice cream sundaes again. She obviously felt it was way more of a novelty than any cake could ever be. I admit that I was slightly disappointed by this request — I mean, if there’s one thing I can do, it’s bake cakes that taste good and look decent on a cake stand — but she wanted what she wanted. So my husband and I said, “Ok, ice cream sundaes it is.” But, she added, “I want homemade whipped cream.” My husband, who’s usually in charge of whipped cream, was fast to say that wouldn’t be a problem. We laid in Maraschino cherries, without stems, as requested; mini M&Ms were purchased, as were Sno-Caps; I chopped some strawberries and doused them with sugar. I made three sauces to serve hot: fudge, marshmallow, and peanut butter.
This year’s event was a Superhero Party, in deference to my daughter’s love of the Christopher Reeve “Superman.” (I want to be clear: she loves the movie not only for Reeve, though he’s definitely the primary draw — she also takes great pleasure in watching Gene Hackman be a jerk.) Her interest in superheroes basically begins and ends with Superman, and she accepts only Reeve. Originally, she wanted us to screen “Superman” for all her friends; this was, we explained to her, a great idea, but totally impractical for so many reasons. “What if we just had a lot of superhero stuff around,” I said, “and then when the party’s over, if anyone wants to stay and watch “Superman” we can watch it together?” This was good enough. The challenge for me, then, was to come up with superhero themed stuff that would suffice from both my daughter’s perspective and also from the perspective of her guests, whose ages range from 5 to 9. Considering that keeping children entertained has never been a strong suit of mine, this was a real problem. I Googled “superhero birthday parties” looking for ideas, and found a million ideas that I would never get involved with — “Have your kids make Spidey Webs with silly string!” — NOT IN MY HOUSE.
But I went online and ordered some supplies (satin capes priced exorbitantly, paper masks the kids can color) and then I went to the dollar store downtown. At the dollar store I spent an hour and a half very carefully perusing the shelves and I finally came away with some gear that was, happily, even more perfect than I could have hoped for. Little tiny towels-in-a-tablet things printed with images of Superman and Batman; superhero coloring books with perforated pages so I could make a drawing table for the kids who didn’t want to be raving maniacs (only a couple of kids took advantage, but my daughter turns out to be enjoying them after the fact); and three superhero jigsaw puzzles. The real score, as far as I was concerned, was what I did with the closet up there.
I created a Fortress of Solitude in the large walk-in closet on the third floor — which is so badly designed that I turned it into a reading nook for my daughter — by covering the cedar blanket chest in there with tinfoil, hanging signage, and installing blue lights so it seemed “icy and cold” in there, instead of just “dark and stuffy,” which is how I’d normally describe it.
The kids showed up and zoomed immediately to the room on the third floor I’d set up as the playroom. (I want to emphasize: this room is not actually a playroom, and it never will be. We don’t have a playroom. We have a room with our stuff in it that happens to be big enough to function as a playroom, sort of, once a year.) The children launched into decorating their masks with varying levels of interest; all donned capes excitedly, except for one little boy who seemed to find the idea of a cape and mask offensive. When everyone was suited up, my husband came upstairs with a CD of Superhero music (i.e., the John Williams’ “Superman Theme”) and a game of musical chairs was played. I, in the meantime, worked to set up the sundae bar. We had three kinds of Ashley’s Ice Cream on hand: cherry vanilla, marshmallow Peeps (no, really), and Oreo. While I dealt with the food — which involved a noble attempt to rescue the marshmallow sauce, which had separated upon being ever-so-gently reheated, and could only be rescued at a fraction of its original volume — my husband started the kids on the Superhero Jigsaw Puzzle contest. The kids divided into three teams, each was given a 100 piece puzzle to solve, and the deal was, whoever finished their puzzle first would be first in line for ice cream.
The children came charging down to the first floor and I began to serve ice cream as quickly as I could. Another parent manned the hot sauces station at the stovetop, where we’d jerry-rigged several double boilers; another parent handled whipped cream. When all the children had eaten, my daughter cried, “AND NOW: HIDE AND SEEK!” I thought, “uh, no,” but it took me a few minutes to be able to distract them into a slightly less treacherous activity. The Twister set was pulled out. As expected, my daughter’s best friend, a little one who loathes all activity requiring motion, said, “Can I be the one who calls the spots?” and I handed her the spinning board. She settled herself happily on the rocking chair and began to boss the more physically vivacious children around. I picked up half-drunk juice boxes and recapped magic markers and put jigsaw puzzle pieces back into their boxes. Soon enough, it was four o’clock, and the wee guests, still wearing their satin capes, were bundled up into their coats. Carrying their masks, and holding Superman or Batman washcloths, some asked me if they were going to get goody bags. “You’re wearing your goody bags,” I told them all, and the parents whisked them away, probably all praying that the kids would calm down once home and maybe eat a good supper that night. I don’t know if any of them did. At our house, though, things were astonishingly quiet, once the nine wee guests were gone. My daughter opened a few of her presents: she hugged and kissed the Calvin & Hobbes books from her grandparents. My husband ordered some takeout pizza for dinner, god bless him, and the event was quiet. Pizza. Christopher Reeve in Superman. Bedtime.
There’s good news out of all of this. My daughter had a great time at her birthday party. The house was restored to order within a few hours. The Fortress of Solitude will remain present for months to come, and I expect it will continue to entertain us all even after the sign comes down. But the best thing is, we have enough leftover whipped cream and strawberries that I think I can make strawberry shortcakes for dessert tonight.