Sandra Tsing Loh reminisces on birthday parties.
I've heard of kids whose birthdays are marked with a family dinner and taking perhaps one friend to a movie. Everyone sings happy birthday and there is a cake, maybe ice cream. I believe those children turn out fine and grow into happy, healthy adults.
Here's what I know about American history. In the 19th century, there were no children's birthday parties. Then, children became special and Protestant families started celebrating their birthdays. By the 1940s, there were already complaints about, quote unquote, "birthday party exhaustion." The 1980s marked the explosion of the birthday party industry. The producer of the event is typically the mother.
That said, the birthday parties of my own childhood were manageable.
This was Southern California in the 1960s and 70s. All of us kids went to the same elementary, middle and high school. Our families had the same incomes, and lived in identical tract homes with the same sparkling cottage cheese ceilings and L-shaped fireplaces. The birthday parties lasted two hours. There was Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Twister, and cake. There would always be a minimum of six kids and a maximum of 10. 10 was huge.
Fast forward to 21st century Los Angeles.
Today, parents who are friends live 40-minute drives from each other, our children go to 10 different schools, and our incomes vary wildly. When my daughters were toddlers, one year I had 30 children in our pool, and it felt like half the cast of The Joy Luck Club in my Jacuzzi. Another year, it was just me clubbing a piñata with a broom before my daughters' three terrified cousins.
I became intent on creating a more manageable rhythm when my oldest started elementary school. But in my daughter's LAUSD kindergarten, in a good school that was also Title One, she was the only blonde out of 20 students. The class resembled a human Noah's Ark, in that there seemed to be two kids of each nationality - Guatemalan, Filipino, Indian, Armenian, Iraqi. Immigrants are nice enough people, but they aren't always aware of our peculiar birthday party culture.
So, I became the American welcome wagon for my daughter's entire grade. I trained those 19 families. I pointedly distributed Scooby Doo invites, as if to say, "This is what we do. We purchase Scooby Doo invites from Target, and then we have cake!" I freely included younger siblings, that's the trick - sometimes three children plopped out of the car at once, screech of tires. Sometimes I drove as far away as Tarzana and picked up kids myself.
By doing that, we were able to maintain respectable quorums.
But then came middle school.
Next week: Let's have a poorly-organized co-ed sleepover!