No, it's not my birthday, or that of anyone in my immediate family. But I did have dinner with an old friend last night, an extremely bright and well-educated man whom I admire greatly and who happens also to be in the throes of raising daughters. I have been thinking about a story my friend told me last night.
When his sister was in grade school, she wanted a big birthday party. She invited all the girls in her class but one (we'll call the excluded girl Susie). When her mother asked why Susie had not been invited, our heroine replied, "I don't like her. She's gross."
That's fine, the mother said. If you're not going to invite everyone, we don't have to have a party at all. The party was cancelled, with the understanding that if the daughter changed her mind and decided to invite Susie, the party would be reinstated. The daughter held out for a long time - until just a few days before her birthday, in fact. At that point, faced with the real possibility of no party at all, she caved in and had her mother call Susie's mother to extend an invitation.
Susie came to the party. As it turns out, she had a severe heart defect and was literally blue in the face from lack of oxygen. She had difficulty eating, so our heroine's mother prepared a special cupcake for her to accommodate her needs. Susie had a great time at the party, and four weeks later, she died.
Once, I planned a birthday party for my oldest daughter. I can't remember how old she was, but it was when she was in grade school, and, like my friend's mother, I insisted that every girl in the class be invited. When the invitations went out, another mom alerted me to the fact that my daughter's party conflicted with the birthday party of another girl in the class. I had not yet seen an invitation to the other girl's party, so in all naivete - yes, I really was this stupid - I called the other girl's mom and asked whether we shouldn't combine our parties and have a dual celebration. My house or hers - I didn't care. I'd be happy to bake or plan a craft or buy paper goods or soda - whatever was needed.
The other mother informed me that she had not been planning on inviting my daughter, as her daughter and mine were not close enough friends.
Both parties proceeded as originally planned, although ours was much smaller, as our invitations had gone out second.
When I was in sixth grade, there was a girl in my class that I liked very much. She was one of the few who spoke to me. She lived biking distance from my house, and we spent a lot of afternoons playing marathon games of Monopoly. This girl - who I'll call Carolyn - happened to have the same birthday as my sister, right smack in the middle of the summer. I pitied her, having a birthday in August. How did you celebrate a birthday, my eleven-year-old mind wondered, when all your friends are out of town, and when you couldn't hand out invitations at school? I knew it was difficult for my sister to have parties, but my mom always made Herculean efforts to make the day special, even if we or most of our friends were on vacation when the occasion rolled around.
Carolyn told me she probably wouldn't have a party because of the inconvenient timing of her birthday. I felt terribly sorry for her. I vowed to surprise her when the day came.
On the big day, I rode my bike to the pharmacy and bought a Love's Baby Soft gift set, with cologne, bath bubbles, and dusting powder. I had the lady wrap the gift in pink paper, and I bought a card to go with it. "Happy Birthday Carolyn!" I wrote. "Your friend forever, Jennie."
Late in the day, my mom drove me to Carolyn's house to drop off the gift. I rang the bell. There was a lot of noise coming from inside the house, and I shifted my weight from foot to foot until Carolyn opened the door. She opened it just a crack.
"Hi Carolyn!" I yelled. "Surprise! Happy birthday!" I held the package out.
She had to open the door a little wider to accept the gift, and in that instant, I saw behind her that a party was in full swing. Several girls from our sixth-grade class were in her living room. There were balloons and crepe paper everywhere.
Carolyn's mom came to the door, carrying a piece of cake on a paper plate. "Who is it, Carolyn?" she asked.
"It's Jennie," Carolyn replied.
"Oh, goodness. Hi Jennie! Carolyn, invite her in! Jennie, we're just having a little celebration. Won't you join us?"
"No, no thank you. No thank you," I stammered, and ran back to my mom's car. When I got into the car, I started to cry.
"What happened?" my mom asked.
"She was having a party," I said.
I don't remember my mom's exact reaction, but I do remember that it was compassionate. She pulled out of the driveway as fast as she could, leaving Carolyn and her mom standing in the doorway blank-faced. She probably reminded me that friends are friends and that family is family, and that we were having a family celebration for my sister that night, and that generosity - of spirit and wallet - is not always rewarded immediately, but is always, in the long run, worth it.
I think that was the point of my friend's story at dinner last night. However repugnant Susie's health problems made her seem to her classmates, the important lesson my friend's mom taught his sister has stayed with him forever.
Just a note to my loyal readers: the August 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine has some really good slow-cooker recipes in it. I am not being compensated to promote that magazine - I just happen to have a copy of it in my bathroom and thought I'd pass the tip along.
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