When she was a kid the coolest birthday parties were hot tub parties. Skinny seven-year-olds wearing Care Bears swimsuits would pile into the spa, overflowing the water, grinning through their giggles, secrets whispered past wrinkled palms as bubbles rose from the churning jets. Some parents would let them snack in the tub: sticky caramel corn or lollipops. After soaking there’d be cake and ice cream, opening presents and receiving favors dropped in plastic handled bags.
She didn’t have a hot tub at her house, always admired the girls who did. One year though her mom threw an elaborate birthday party, a carnival theme. Their sloped backyard was transformed, different stations set up for children to explore. Her mom manned the face painting, tiny lions and rainbows inked onto rosy cheeks as she perched on the picnic table bench. Her older brother told fortunes in the green canvas play tent, towel fashioned into a turban as he passed predictions on to the little partygoers. There were balloons and plastic door prizes. With three kids in her family, it was rare to have such an elaborate birthday celebration. All her best friends and girls she wanted to be her friends were there; she was overcome with glee.
Her mom always made the birthday sheet cake, sprinkles on top, tube frosted lettering: Happy Birthday! This was before Pinterest, long after and decades before handmade was considered worthier, the hipsters’ and modern moms’ claim to superiority. It was the progress and image-obsessed eighties: Hypercolor t-shirts, squared polyester shoulder pads and blue eyeshadow were king. She always, ungratefully, wished she could have a store-bought sheet cake or an ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins; perfectly frosted corners and magenta lettering sprayed on. Her parents were frugal though, and her mom’s cake surely tasted better. Two facts lost on a child who wouldn’t know, until decades later, what was best for her.
Now, with three children of her own, she bakes tiered birthday cakes, carefully procures themed party favors, plans activities and decor to suit each child, so their memories will be bright. But she’s also exhausted in the stretched way every modern mother is; she’s gained perspective. Maybe every other year will be a big birthday party when they’re young. Sometimes store bought treats, sometimes just one friend over for a special outing. Because she knows: you really only need one outstanding birthday party memory to last a lifetime.