The Perfect Party

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Madonna dance-off. Limbo contest. Cannoli cream cake. 

Year after year of my childhood, that was the formula for my birthday party, which took place in the basement of my Staten Island home. It was a three-prong party plan that worked. Well, four prongs, really. Just before the cake was served, came the Chaplin-esque birthday cake pratfall, courtesy of my father. He’d walk down the stairs to the basement, carefully holding the cake box aloft, only to stumble at the bottom, throwing himself down the last few steps and tossing the box extravagantly into the air. The crowd would gasp, and he’d jump to his feet, open the box and reveal that IT WAS EMPTY! Ha! Ha HA! No need to worry, the cannoli cream cake was intact, upstairs.

So:

Madonna dance-off.
Limbo contest.
Father pratfall.
Cannoli cream cake.

After the age of 11, I could have done without the pratfall, but generally speaking, it was a good party. The formula worked. I am reminded of this as I enter the winter, also known as Kear Family Birthday Season. Three kids. Three birthdays. Lots of headaches.

I’m not the sort of parent prone to observing wistfully, “Things were so much simpler when we were kids.” First of all, of course things were simpler. We were kids.  Really, though, I’m just not terribly interested in adjudicating which time period was better/ easier/ simpler/ less stressful. The circumstances of our lives and our world are too fluid to make it a satisfying enterprise. Besides, since I’m not the proud owner of a time machine, there’s not much I can do about it anyway.

If I were that sort, though, I’d definitely observe that birthday celebrations were simpler when I was a kid. Of course, it might just be that birthday celebrations were, and are, simpler when you inhabit a living space in which more than 260 square feet is allocated to each family member (yes, I’ve done the math).

We just don’t have the space to host a birthday celebration at home. This is the party line.
It is part true and part me playing the NYC No Space Card.
“No space” is the golden excuse that comes free with your exorbitant rent in New York City.  I’d say it’s one of the hidden perks except that I think it’s the only one. Regardless, it’s a goody.
Unwanted house guest angling to crash at your place?
“I wish we could but we just don’t have the space.”
Your spouse planning to purchase some hideous piece of furniture on the level of When Harry Met Sally’s wagon wheel:
“I wish we could but we just don’t have the space.”
Your child begging for a dog, or a baby brother:
“I wish we could but we just don’t have the space.”
The No Space card is so valuable it almost makes up for not having any space.

But the truth is, even if I had all the space in the world, even if I lived in Staten Island, I would try to get out of hosting a kid party. Because of the cleaning.

It’s not that I’m against cleaning. For an adult cocktail party, I’d happily scour my bathroom like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. But tirelessly cleaning my apartment, top to bottom, only to have a horde of children obliterate it again, within minutes, has always seemed to me a task that only a dupe like Sisyphus would take on. The pointlessness demoralizes me.

For these compelling reasons, I’ve avoided hosting parties at our apartment for over a decade. This would have been impossible financially – since paying for a kiddie birthday party in Park Slope costs what weddings do in other parts of the country – except that my grandmother’s apartment building happens to have a party room.

The party room is the hero of this tale. The party room, spacious and clean and practically free, has made it possible to celebrate my children’s birthdays …  not to mention baptisms, first holy communions, Halloweens and whatever random holidays they’ve had a hankering to observe.

We’ve thrown so many birthday parties at the old party room that my husband, the kids and I are nothing short of a well-oiled party machine. We can set up a party in a tight fifteen minutes if need be.

My husband does streamers. It has taken him years to perfect his streaming technique, and to describe it would be to reveal trade secrets I am not at liberty to disclose. Let’s just say his moves are as intricate as a Simone Biles floor routine: double stranding and full twists and three-point-anchoring. It’s not for novices.

The kids are on balloons. Thankfully, they’ve spent their whole lives training their lungs for the task. At least, that’s what I surmise all the yelling was for.

I set up the folding tables with juice and snacks and paper products. I hang up the charming homemade birthday signs. I spread age-appropriate art supplies and activities in key locations around the room.

Then David turns on the music and the party is on.

We’ve perfected the party the way you nail down anything, through trial and error

PInata?

No, oh no, never again.

Karaoke machine?

Yes, indeed, well worth the investment.

Finding the right number of guests has involved a learning curve, too. Instructive, indeed, was the year I let my daughter invite everyone her heart desired and everybody came, creating a level of mayhem not witnessed since the sinking of the Titanic. She ended up hiding under the table, in tears.

Then, only a month later, there was the party for my other daughter, in which we catapulted to the other end of the guest list spectrum. So eager was I not to repeat my over-inviting mistake, that I severely under-invited kids. That’s not exactly accurate. I invited all the kids in her day care class. I just intentionally threw the party at a time when I knew no one would be able to come. It worked. Only two guests made it. The three toddlers ended up overwhelmed in the large room and I couldn’t handle the strain of having to make conversation with the two parents in attendance. My daughter ended up under the table, in tears. I felt like joining her.

Of course, no sooner did we stumble upon the perfect party formula then the kids outgrew it. Now that my older kids are tweens, it’s all about the sleepover birthday party. And sleepovers, I have found, can’t be shot on location. They are not an away game. You can’t outsource sleepovers. You have to have sleepovers at your house.

I have tried to play the No Space card, but my kids are old enough now to play their own cards. The Guilt cards. The Childhood-Is-So-Fleeting-And-Before-You-Know-It-You’ll-Wish-We-Were-Still-Taking-Up-More-Than-Our-Allotted-260-Square Feet Card.

I’ve got nothing that can trump that one.

And so we begin a whole new trial and error process. Which, I guess, Is parenting in a nutshell.

Nicole C. Kear is the author of the memoir Now I See You (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Her chapter book series for children, The Fix-It Friends, will be published by Macmillan Kids’ Imprint in spring 2017.

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About Author

Nicole Caccavo Kear’s memoir, Now I See You, debuted June ‘14 by St. Martin’s Press, and she contributes regularly to Parents and American Baby, as well as Salon and Babble in between her dispatches at the Reader. You can keep up with her misadventures in Mommydom on her blog, A Mom Amok (amomamok.com). A native of Brooklyn, she lives in the Slope with her three firecracker kids, one very patient husband, and an apparently immortal hermit crab.

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