On Thursday morning I put June on the school bus with the instructions, “Have a good last day of school as a five year old,” and she flashed me a brilliant smile.
June is six now. She was born right before the cherries bloomed on the Tidal Basin. She was six weeks early, and developed a bad case of jaundice so she had to stay at the hospital three days after I was released. I hated being separated from her, even for those three days. We were constantly shuttling back and forth between the hospital and home, with bottles of pumped milk in tow.
The hospital was just around the corner from the Tidal Basin so one day either on the way to the hospital or on the way home, we made a drive-by visit. Beth dropped me and Noah and YaYa off to walk around a bit while she circled in the car (parking is often impossible when the cherries are in bloom). We were just a little too early, but we found a couple of blooming trees for a quick photo-op and then we hopped back in the car.
The trees bloomed in earnest soon after and I wanted to go back, but once we got June home, she had to be wrapped in a phototherapy blanket round the clock, allowed out only to nurse, and we just couldn’t make it. Even though we didn’t take her that first year, I still associate the cherry blossoms with the surprising, chaotic days after her birth. We call her our cherry blossom baby, just as Noah is our iris baby.
At 6:35 a.m. on Friday the phone rang. I wondered if it was a wrong number or an early-rising relative wishing June a happy birthday. Instead it was Baskin-Robbins, seeking advice of the frosting color of the ice-cream cake we’d ordered for June’s party. The whole cake-buying experience was bizarre. June had fallen in love with this cake because it had real half-sized ice cream cones on top but Beth had customer service challenges placing and picking up the order and in the end we got a cake that said “Happy June Birthday” instead of “Happy Birthday, June.” So, just a word of warning if you’re local and you don’t like receiving business calls before dawn or scrambled messages in icing–consider another vendor.
After Beth confirmed that pink frosting was fine, we all went to the living room where June’s wrapped presents were arrayed around her new two-wheeler. “A bike,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I like the bike.” Then she tore into the other presents. We got her a cat-themed math game, Rat-a-Tat Cat, partly because her party theme was cats and partly because it looked fun. Noah got her a bell for her bike and a pair of headphones (she uses headphones to watch television or play on the computer while he’s doing homework and he thought she’d like her own pair). Everything else was clothes. My aunt Peggy sent Hello Kitty pants, we got her a Hello Kitty t-shirt, a numeral six t-shirt and other summer clothes and pajamas. There were clothes from YaYa, too, including a pair of ladybug rain boots. It was only after all the presents were opened that June really focused on the bike and decided she wanted to ride it right then. I told her she needed to eat breakfast and get dressed and ready for school first. In the end, she had about five minutes practice in the driveway before I put her, clad in her number six t-shirt and new leggings, on the school bus. “Have a good day, six year old,” I told her. Again, she grinned at me.
When she got off the bus, she was holding a cardboard crown. Her teacher does not allow birthday treats to be sent in from home, but birthday celebrants get a crown and everyone sings “Feliz cumpleaños” to them. I’m used to more elaborate school celebrations, both at preschool and in elementary school, but June seemed satisfied. She wanted to practice riding her bike again–she’d do it three times before the day was out and she got a little better every time. (By Saturday morning she could pedal up a slight incline and her turns were impeccable.) She said she thought we could take the training wheels off. I counseled her to wait.
My mom arrived for a weekend visit around 4:15, and there were more presents to open. A pair of summer pajamas with cats on them had arrived during the day (“The cat’s pajamas” I told Beth—how could I resist that joke?), as had a rubber bracelet from Auntie Sara. It has holes in it and it has letters you can fit into the holes to spell words. It came bearing the words Junie Dell. (Dell is June’s middle name, and mine, too. I used to call her Junie Dell when she was a baby. It was one of those baby nicknames that didn’t stick except with Sara, but I like that Sara has a special nickname for her.) The next day, June changed the words to “I love you.” Mom brought all kinds of presents—a giant wooden Pinocchio marionette, a tiny vase with a purple ceramic cat attached to it, a paint-your-own tea set kit, and of course, clothes. June selected the belt from one outfit and decided to wear it with the other outfit (a hot pink t-shirt and leggings to go under a blue sundress with pink flowers) at her party the next day.
I gave June an early bath because we were going out for pizza at Roscoe’s and I wasn’t sure what time we’d be home. It was a warm evening so we sat on the patio, eating wild mushroom crostini, marinated olives (I let June go over her olive quota for the day), salad and pizza. They were out of gelato because their freezer was broken, so we headed over to Capital City Cheesecake for cheesecake and cannoli. When we got home, it was June’s bedtime and her big day was over.
But the next day was probably just as exciting because it was her birthday party. We spent the morning and early afternoon running birthday errands, cleaning the house, assembling gift bags and getting the porch ready for the pin-the-tail-on-the-cat game and the piñata. I’d originally envisioned these as front and back yard games, but rain was predicted, and sure enough it started drizzling around 11:30. Beth and June went out to pick up the “Happy June Birthday” cake and to buy yellow roses and six balloons in varying designs. One has a cat wearing a birthday hat and sunglasses. Another is the exact Dora balloon June got for her birthday last year. When you tap it, Dora sings “Happy Birthday” in English and Spanish. The sound of the song was still etched deeply into my brain, and Beth’s, too, so she set some strict ground rules about under what circumstances one might tap the balloon to hear the pint-sized bilingual songstress go at it.
The party was at 3:00 and her friends arrived between 2:50 and 3:15. Maggie, who is June’s only friend who attended both her preschool and her elementary school, made introductions, while the girls selected instruments from the bin and there was an impromptu concert (most of June’s parties seem to start this way). Once everyone had arrived, we gathered the guests onto the carpet to listen as Mom read them a story The Leprechaun Under the Bed. June remembered Mom reading at her party last year and wanted her to do it again. I’d suggested The Cat in the Hat, but she knew as soon as we checked this book out of the library and read it the first time that it was the one she wanted read at her party. (Spoiler: the leprechaun turns into a cat at the end of the story.)
Next we moved out to the porch for pin-the-tail-on-the-cat. Last spring June attended a classmate’s birthday party that had classic games as the theme–pin-the-tail-on-the donkey, sack races, etc, and it occurred to me that though you don’t see kids play them much any more, these games are classics for a reason. It was a really fun party. So I tucked that idea away in the back of my mind, and when June came up with the cat theme for her party I was all ready with pin-the-tail-on-the-cat. June was all over it, especially since she could make the cat and the tails herself. One by one, I blindfolded the guests and gently spun them around six times each and let them go, sometimes with a subtle correction if they left my hands going in the wrong direction. The kids laughed hysterically as the tails went onto the cat’s face or the air above its body. A couple of them got the tail on or pretty close to the cat’s rump—I think Talia’s was the best placed.
Back inside, it was time for games. We had two and let the girls divide into groups and choose which one they wanted to play. The first one was The Cat in the Hat, I Can Do That. In this game, you lay cards together to form instructions for a task to perform with props from the story and you get points if you complete it. June got this game for Christmas and was more interested in playing her new game and most of her guests followed her lead, but I supervised a game between Talia and Megan and then started another round with Talia, when Megan had lost interest and Talia wanted to keep playing. Beth says she wished she’d thought to get a picture of me trying to wriggle my way under a low foam arch, while balancing the fishbowl in one hand.
Mom and Noah had played Rat-a-Tat Cat with June earlier the in day so they could get the hang of the rules, and Emelia already knew them because she had the same game at home, so the card game went smoothly. Beth said they all seemed to get the hang of it pretty quickly and enjoyed it. When the games were over, we set everyone up with paper and crayons and asked them to draw cats, as a souvenir. Some of them drew the Cat in the Hat, others drew Hello Kitty and others went with non-branded felines. Keller divided her paper into three sections and did one of each.
We had cake next. The kids thought “Happy June Birthday” was hilarious, an improvement on “Happy Birthday June” really, and as Beth divvied up the little cones they were agreeable about not all getting their first choices in ice cream (each cone was a different flavor). As we ate cake, Mom sat on the couch with Morgan’s mom and baby brother and got acquainted with her, finding out she went to Oberlin—Beth’s and my alma mater. She even lived in Noah Hall, the dorm where Beth and I met, and after which we named Noah.
I gathered up the goody bags so the guests could stash their piñata booty in them and we headed back out to the porch to smash it. All the kids had at least two turns. When a hole opened but no candy fell out, Megan tried to tilt the piñata (or maybe enlarge the hole) by poking her stick in the hole. It was Noah who finally sent the candy cascading to the floor with some mighty whacks. Morgan’s mom commented that older brothers have their uses.
June wanted to know if we could have some music while we waited for parents to come collect the guests. When Beth put on Blue Moo, June asked Talia quite formally, “Talia, will you dance with me?” and Talia did. They danced joyfully around the living room as June’s birthday party wound down to a close. It was cute to watch, especially since I am so very fond of Talia, whom I’ve known since she was not quite two.
After the guests left, June opened her presents–a book, three stuffed animals (including a cat of course), a mermaid magnet set, and a Lego café kit. June wanted to assemble the café right away, but we went out for Indian first, and then she set to work on it. It was hard to tear her away to go to bed. She finished it the next afternoon, following all thirty-three diagrams–less than twenty-four hours after receiving it, and impressing Mom with her small motor skills and her tenacity.
The final adventure of June’s birthday weekend was an expedition to the cherry blossoms and the new MLK memorial. The peak bloom period is short and notoriously difficult to predict. Mom has never caught it, though she often visits us around June’s birthday. For awhile the predicted four-day peak period spanned the weekend and we thought luck was with us, but then a few eighty-plus-degree days accelerated the blooming and the peak period moved back, ending Friday. I thought if we went Friday it would be too hard to get back by bedtime, and going on Saturday before the party would make for a stressfully jam-packed day, so we waited until Sunday.
Now I will say that given the choice between a few days before the peak period and a few days after I would choose after every time. There are drifts of petals on the ground and blizzards of them in the air with every breeze; there are petals in muddy puddles and on the rippling water of the Tidal Basin, and there are damp petals stuck to every horizontal and vertical surface. In its way, it’s almost as magic as the classic picture postcard puffy pink and white blooms. It looks like confetti strewn on the street after a particularly wild party. So in a way it was a fitting end to June’s birthday celebration, an after party of sorts. She got to christen her new boots in the puddles, eat hot edamame from a stand, admire the trees (solemnly telling us “all trees are beautiful”), run through the paths between the tulip beds at the Floral Library, take pictures with Beth’s phone, joke with her brother, give her grandmother countless hugs, hold hands with everyone and seize the joy and the beauty of the moment and of being six.