I had only two birthday parties that were open to kids outside of the family when I was a child. This was my own choice; I wasn’t entirely comfortable being the center of attention, and I was even less comfortable playing hostess.
One of those parties, though, was the year I turned eight. I don’t know what made me decide we should have a party. Maybe Mom suggested it, or maybe I just had a whim. Every kid in the neighborhood was invited, even the ones way younger than me. This might have been Mom’s doing; she might have worried about the younger siblings of some of my friends feeling left out because they weren’t invited, so she just invited everybody.
There must have been about 15 children of varying sizes squeezed in around our dining room table. The first guest to arrive was the rapscallion boy up the street, Ricky. He was known for being racuous and mouthy, but he could be slick and flirty as well — even though he was maybe a year younger than me. (He’d already tricked me into kissing him, but that’s another story.) He came knocking at our back door long before the other guests arrived, and I stepped out on the porch to greet him. He was looking snazzy in slacks and a colorful two-tone shirt. He had something cupped in his hand and said he had a present for me. It could have been a dead mouse for all I knew, but he opened his palm to reveal a small flower-shaped brooch with a rhinestone center. It was pretty, and I was impressed. Later Mom fretted whether Ricky had swiped it out of his mother’s jewelry box to give to me.
We always enjoyed the home movie of this party because of our big dance after the games and cake and ice cream. Mom turned on the stereo turntable for us; we probably danced to Alvin and the Chipmunks albums since there wasn’t much popular music in our house yet (at least nothing that a group of children under ten would want to dance to).
The dancing got wilder and wilder, perhaps from a group sugar high from the ice cream and cake. Although the home movie shows a couple of mopes slumped on the couch, the rest of the guests are kicking up their heels in the middle of the living room floor. At one point Diane, one of my livelier friends, climbed up on the solid footstool and started calling “Change your partner!” There was plenty of screeching and collisions and laughter in the mayhem. The last shot on the home movie of that party is of Diane bent completely over, dancing in a circle with her dress up over her back and her petticoat and underpants showing.
The second party took place the year I turned eleven, and it was a much more “mature” social function. That party must have been my idea, because I remember contributing suggestions for the table decorations, possibly including the spray of plastic flowers that each guest found at her seat at the table. It was girls only, and there was no dancing. Everyone wore nice dresses, and I think part of the point was to be very lady-like. I don’t know what possessed me or where I came up with such a notion, because being lady-like was never much of a pursuit for me. However, I have a dim impression of wanting things to be elegant, although I don’t think that was actually the word in the back of my head. I did want it to be “nice.” Perhaps we played some games that weren’t too rambunctious. All I really remember is having cake and ice cream, everyone with their plastic flower sprays at their places, and opening gifts. I wish I could remember more of the gifts. I’m pretty sure Rosie or someone gave me one or two volumes of Nancy Drew. I was a devoted Trixie Belden reader, and possibly Rosie was trying to influence my reading habits. Maybe that was the year I also received a copy or two of Donna Parker. Eventually I did get into Donna Parker somewhat, but I just never could connect with Nancy Drew. Too ladylike or something.
I attended way more parties than I gave, and maybe that wasn’t the best reciprocal behavior. No one ever said anything snide about it. I always took nice gifts to my friends’ parties, so I wasn’t a total moocher. I didn’t often take home any prizes — I just wasn’t very competitive, or very competent, at party games.
At one birthday party, though, I got a stunning prize simply for being bad at games. My friend Nancy, who’s birthday was also in April, had a party with all the trimmings. At game time, I never even came close to winning, or placing or showing, in a single contest. While we were having our cake, Nancy’s mother asked, “Is there anyone here who didn’t win a prize?”
“I didn’t,” I said a little louder than I should have; I was feeling very disgruntled. To my delight, Nancy’s mother handed me a small wrapped box. I opened it to discover a true treasure: a ring with a cameo of Barbie in base relief gold-tone metal, the head surrounded by rhinestones. I thought it was the prettiest ring I’d ever seen (even though I’d never been able to get into Barbie any more than Nancy Drew), and I could tell by the oohing and ahhing of the other girls that some of them were envious of my prize.
I loved that ring and wore it constantly. Eventually the cheap metal corroded from hand-washing and bathing, and Barbie’s head with its corona of rhinestones simply broke off. I kept the fingernail-sized cameo tucked away somewhere for a long time, until it finally vanished into that mysterious black hole that swallows childhood treasures without a trace.