Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Birthday Season

"Ack!  The poop deck is collapsing!
"Fondant! Quick!  Roll some up and stick it under there. We'll frost it blue and call it a wave"


" I can't get the woolly mammoth to fall over when it gets a direct hit, without making it so floppy that it won't stand up in a breeze.  Can you take a look at it?"


"So, do you think we should have the kids rob the tomb in the pyramid before or after the toilet-paper mummy race?"

Those were just a few of the conversations that took place during the preparation for kids' birthday parties in our house, in the good years, during times when Andre was stable and I was the uber-mom.

It's the Birthday Season again here, and I'm sort of surprised by the brick wall of "I can't do this" that I'm facing.  I've been thinking about the stark contrast between "then" and "now".

Back in the days when I not only cooked nearly everything from scratch, homeschooled my kids, and kept my house reasonably picked-up, I figured out that all we had to do for a great kids' party was pick a theme that appealed to them:  Pirates, Cave-people, Ancient Egypt (Ok, give us a break, we were homeschoolers--Egypt-o-mania comes with the territory), Space, Tigers, Swamp Creatures... and then follow the formula of projectiles, finger food, and some large props made from cardboard, and of course, THE CAKE.  Not just any old store-bought cake, but homemade cake sculptures:  a space shuttle, a head of a saber-toothed tiger, a pirate ship (yes, we did manage to shore-up the collapsing poop deck with a rolled-up piece of fondant), a tiger, an arctic scene with fondant penguins and polar bears cavorting around an icy pool made of blue jello,  the pyramids at Giza (complete with palm trees), Lightning McQueen from the movie, Cars...

 For entertainment, the kids shot rubber-band rockets at a huge cardboard moon, climbed up in the tree-house to hurl water balloons at a  British Man-o-War cruising in the grass of the backyard below, threw bean-bag "meat" to feed the hungry (paper-mache) alligator, slingshot bean-bag "rocks" at the cardboard woolly mammoth. ( See how theme-adaptable the formula is? )   They took turns unwrapping gift-studded aluminum foil asteroids, used sticks and leaves to paint the inside of a cardboard "cave", mummified their dads in toilet paper, and walked on two-by-fours through the "gator-infested-swamp" wearing huge rubber Wellingtons that engulfed their little legs and made them wobbly.  And they made memories.

Lightning McQueen from "Cars", Andre's last cake sculpture
In those days, I'd sit down with my notebook, the one where I kept all the sketches for holiday table designs, the recipe lists, the guest lists, the cake ideas... and I'd work out the theme, the games, the guest list, the ideas for homemade goodie bags, the menu, and after the first few of these, I figured out how to best tap into Andre's gift for engineering the props for the games and sculpting the cake. We'd stay up past midnight on the night before the party, working on those amazing cakes, and it was a genuine relief each time to hand off the final perfectionist details in buttercream and Betty Crocker to Andre somewhere around 1 a.m. and go to bed knowing that there would be another birthday masterpiece in the freezer by morning.

On the day of the party, I'd be busy setting up the "experience"--the bowling-for-tigers game, the posing-for-pictures-as-a-penguin area, the giant cardboard moon for rubber-band-rocket shooting. The feed-the-alligator bean-bag toss.

The guests, their parents and siblings would arrive (no "drop-off and pick-up" parties for me), and I would spend the next few hours in a blur of motion. I am so grateful that there were adults with cameras at these gatherings, or there would be no photos at all.

In those days, those parties didn't feel like work.  I felt like That Mom, the one who could pull of these amazing parties and make it look easy...before there were just too many plates spinning in our day-to-day lives and my energy began to flag.

Somewhere in the middle of every party, Andre could be found doing something he did extremely well.  When I need an image that helps soften my painful memories, it's an image like this that I turn to.
Andre and Mark, 2004

I've written a lot about Andre's darkness, and for most of the first year since his death, that's felt like the thing I needed most to do: to bring to the daylight the side of our life together that we colluded in hiding.  But our lives were not all darkness.  All of the Hedrick babies knew a Daddy with an almost untiring ability to cuddle sleepy children, a Daddy who could fix nearly anything that was broken, a Daddy who took great pleasure in the grand gesture of unveiling the special birthday creations that he spent so much careful time perfecting.

In fact, over the years of growing instability in our house, as my own energy to keep up the facade faded, and the parties got less and less ambitious, the tradition of the cake sculpture was the last to go, because it was something that I could hand-off to Andre.  I would make the sheet cake that would be frozen and sculpted into shapes, and the buttercream icing that would hold it all together, and my cake-engineer would take it from there.  One year, I couldn't even muster the energy to make the frosting, so I gave Andre the vague instructions to mix "some butter, some milk and some powdered sugar, until you get something the consistency of spackle".  His ratio of butter to sugar was inordinately high, and the coating on the outside of the Death Star, for Mark's 2009 birthday, was a bit shinier and greasier than usual.   But the piping of the black icing designs was precise, and thrilled the birthday boy.

Toward the middle of that party, too, there was another sleepy child who needed to be held (and needed his face wiped, too).  I'm so glad that photos like this exist.  In years to come, I hope that the kids will remember these moments were real, too. 
Rhys and Daddy, 2009

Last year, one of the great gifts that came from the thoughtful, selfless circle of my care-givers was the handling of The Birthday Season for me.  Three of my four kids have birthdays that fall in August, September and October, and there was no way that I could have managed any kind of a celebration then.  I wasn't even managing to get dinner on the table in those days.  In fact, the Birthday Season felt as challenging as the upcoming Holiday Season that year.  

And this year, it's time for me to handle the Birthday Season, which kicked off yesterday.  Try as I might, I just couldn't gather the courage to plan a party full of little kids, but I did manage to make a cake and bring it with us to another family's party on Friday night, where we sang and shared what Rhys dubbed, "The Zebra Butt Cake"  The plan was for a chocolate cake, iced in white buttercream, with Zebra stripes of chocolate ganache.  I was rushing, and tried to put warm ganache onto buttercream and the result was a sliding, muddy-looking mess.  Given that I had used a bundt pan (say that like a 7 year old, until it comes out "butt pan"), my 2013 creation became the Zebra Butt Cake.  It is, sadly, a far cry from the cakes of other years. 

But I was told that it was delicious, and it was homemade, from scratch (not even a box cake), and somehow, my kiddo felt celebrated.  (Going to the movies and getting to choose a restaurant for dinner out, followed by a bike ride together through the neighborhood also helped, perhaps.)  

And that, I think, is the best I can do this year.  With one birthday celebration behind me, two more ahead of me, plus the shadow of what would have been Andre's 47th birthday in September, I continue to hang onto the notion of "good enough", and hope somehow that it is, truly, "good enough".  

Belly up to a lovely slice of Zebra Butt anyone?    

No comments:

Post a Comment