On Friday morning I flipped the calendar page to May. “Hey, it’s my birthday cake!” Noah said, looking at the picture. For Christmas Noah and Beth made me a calendar out of family photos using iPhoto. The picture for May is of Noah’s birthday cake from his fifth birthday. He was really into the Magic School Bus (http://www.scholastic.com/magicschoolbus/) books and videos back then and he was on the verge of starting kindergarten so it had a school bus on it. It was also the first year Noah expressed an opinion about the design of his cake, ushering Beth into the job of custom cake decorator. For Noah’s sixth birthday, she made a cloud cake (he was at the height of his meteorology phase then). On his seventh birthday it was a Club Penguin cake.
This year Noah put the theme of his birthday party up to a vote. He gave his guests two options: the human body or pirates. So in advance of invitations, I sent a save-the-date and please-vote-on-the-party-theme email to the parents of Noah’s guests. Pirates won by a large margin, though Noah had been hoping for human body. (He said he would vote only to break the tie if there was one.) I myself had a pirate chest birthday cake when I was ten so I suggested that to Noah. I was thinking it would be pretty easy—a rectangular cake with chocolate frosting and licorice bands across it and maybe a sprinkling of chocolate coins in gold foil. He was having none of it. He wanted his cake to look like a diamond, not only diamond-shaped, but also sparkly. Beth was a bit intimidated by the idea so she was glad when he changed his mind and settled on cupcakes with gold-colored frosting. They were to evoke gold coins. At one point he wanted her to carve faces into the frosting (he’d settled on some obscure nineteenth-century President—I can’t remember which one) but that idea fell by the wayside, much to Beth’s relief.
Like Noah, I’d been hoping for a human body victory. Who knows what kind of cake ideas he would have had for that one, but I’m not the birthday cake baker. I was thinking more of party activities. When Noah was in nursery school half his class was obsessed with pirates and it was all-pirates-all-the-time on the playground that year. I was often troubled by the violent nature of the play. I brainstormed with Noah about non-violent pirate games they could play at his party. (Is that an oxymoron? I think maybe it is.) He seemed most interested in a treasure hunt anyway so I was relieved about that.
Friday Beth stayed home from work to prepare for the party. She went out and bought black goody bags and a silver pen Noah could use to write his guests’ names on them. She got cardboard pirate hats and hooks for the guests to wear and pirate plates and napkins and a couple of skull-and-crossbones garlands for the fence and pirate chest-shaped containers of bubble soap with little pirate bubble wands. She even found a pirate-chest piñata. To fill the piñata she bought chocolate coins and gold Mardi-Gras beads. She also brought home blue cotton candy ice cream from Cold Stone (http://www.coldstonecreamery.com/), which Noah requested. The color was meant to suggest the ocean, Noah said.
After Noah got home from school, they baked the cupcakes. They were coconut, one of Noah’s favorite flavors. I don’t know if he had a tropical angle in mind or not. Beth was a little afraid his guests wouldn’t like them since a lot of kids don’t like coconut, but she went ahead and made them.
Meanwhile, I worked on an article for Sara, poured buckets of water onto the porch floor and swabbed the yellow-green film of pollen off of it, watched June and took her shopping at Now and Then so she could select a gift for Noah. She picked out a blue plastic fish, a small foam globe, and a candy necklace. “I would like one, too,” she said politely, so I bought two.
Friday night I let Noah open one present, a number eight t-shirt like June’s beloved number three shirt, in case he wanted to wear it at his party the next day. I also reminded him he does have a t-shirt with a dog dressed as a pirate on it that would also be appropriate for the occasion. In the end he decided on one of his Hawaiian shirts instead. He often wears these to spring and summer parties. (In fact when he was five he impressed my mom by telling her he liked Hawaiian shirts because they were “festive.”)
Saturday morning and early afternoon Beth and I cleaned house. I washed the dirt of the picnic table and chairs and Beth frosted the cupcakes and sprayed yellow coloring mist on them. (June was particularly interested in this part of the operation.) Beth hung the garlands and the piñata. Rain was forecast and it was overcast, but so far it had not rained. We crossed our fingers that it would hold off until five, the party’s ending time.
Noah stayed in pajamas for much of the day but when it was time to get dressed he decided the weather was too cool for his Hawaiian shirt. Much deliberation about which of his long-sleeved shirts was most pirate-like ensued. I suggested that his largest button-down shirt might create a rakish billowy effect. He paired it with jeans ripped out at one knee.
Sasha arrived at 2:55. Beth gave Noah and Sasha hats and hooks to play with. The hats kept falling off and were soon abandoned, but the hooks were a big hit. Within minutes of Sasha’s arrival, the two boys were dueling on the lawn. I considered my no-violent-play-at-the-pirate-party policy and almost immediately abandoned it as impossible to enforce. Even though it was intended as a duel, the way they had their hooks linked together made it look more like a dance. Or maybe that was just what I told myself.
The rest of the pirate lads and the one pirate lass arrived soon after Sasha did. Do any of you who are parents get Cookie magazine? It has this kids’ party feature with all menus and activities and everything planned out in fifteen-minute increments and all extremely organized. Have a look: (http://www.cookiemag.com/food/birthday_party. Our parties have never been remotely like these. After we took Noah’s guests on the D.C. Duck last year I thought that was it, our simple backyard parties were over, at least for Noah, but that’s exactly what Noah wanted this year: to invite five friends over (we told him he could have up to eight but he only wanted his close friends), to have a treasure hunt and a piñata and cupcakes and ice cream in the yard. Even with the complicated clues Noah wrote for the treasure hunt, the planned activities wouldn’t take even close to two hours so we let the pirates spend the first fifty minutes of the party tearing around the yard, leaping off the porch walls and staging intrigue. They divided into two teams of three and much to my relief, espionage turned out to be a bigger draw than battle. The pirates chased each other around the yard; they hid and spied on each other. Players occasionally switched teams and their new teammates had to decide if the new pirate was actually a double agent. I should have predicted this turn of events. Most of these kids are involved in a running spy game at recess. (Whenever I call it a game, Noah gets exasperated with me. “It’s not a game, Mommy” he will insist. “We’re really spies.”) We did put a stop to some swordplay with sticks. (You’re not really a parent until you’ve warned children about putting an eye out, right?) But overall, all Beth and I needed to do was watch and reassure June, who was a bit overwhelmed by the screaming horde of pirates tearing through her yard.
The piñata required a little more supervision. I asked Noah to let June have a turn and he agreed she could go first. Then he got the idea of going youngest to oldest and all the kids chimed in with their birthdays so they could figure out the order. They thought it was funny that the youngest of Noah’s friends was the second tallest and the oldest was the shortest. It took quite a few rounds to demolish the piñata, even though Sean and Maura both play baseball and have good swings. A container of bubble soap broke inside it and got the chocolate coins soapy. If you unwrapped the foil carefully it was possible to extract the candy soap-free, but not everyone was careful and some soap was consumed along with the chocolate. While Elias talked Beth into letting him taking home the smashed piñata for his collection of broken piñatas, the rest of the pirates sat on the porch and ate the booty until we called them to the treasure hunt. Noah had written a set of clues in the forms of riddles whose answers were colors. Colors corresponded to different areas in the house and yard, all given nautical names. The kitchen was the galley, the bathroom was the head, his room was the crew’s quarters, etc. As the group solved the riddles co-operatively they’d head off to room in question to find the next clue. The last clue led them to the study, where the gold coin/cupcakes were hidden.
Beth needn’t have worried about the cupcakes. Only one child didn’t care for coconut and the blue ice cream was a hit, too. Conversation around the picnic table centered on the how toxic the bubble soap might be and whether or not the pirates who ate the chocolate coins from the piñata might have been poisoned. Then Elias told a story, true, he insisted, about a butcher who killed homeless people and then sold them as meat. After he finished, there was a long considering silence and Maura said she didn’t think it was true. People would notice the disappearances, she said. People don’t care about the homeless, someone said. No, she said, she cared and if she did, others must, too. I knew I liked Maura. Noah followed up with a story from one of his ghost story books, about a set of old-fashioned cabin motor courts that had burned to the ground but re-appeared when travelers in need arrived.
As they finished eating, the pirates drifted away from the table until only Noah and June were still eating. (Peter was polite enough to stay until the end of Noah’s story.) The pirate spy game resumed pretty seamlessly. Soon all the big kids were tearing around the yard again. When their parents came, they hid. Elias’s mom seemed less than thrilled that he was bringing home a new piñata. Sasha’s dad wanted to know if they had raided any oil rigs. At last only Maura was left. Noah invited her to swing on the sky chair until her folks arrived.
When the guests had left we went out for Thai, a birthday eve tradition since the last meal I ate before giving birth to Noah was at a Thai restaurant. Then Noah came home and opened his gifts from his friends, many of them pirate-themed (a book about shipwrecks, a pirate Lego set, etc.). One of his friends got him a remote-control flying toy (imagine a helicopter without the part you ride in) which he enjoyed flying around the house and another friend got him Battleship (http://www.amazon.com/Hasbro-4730-Battleship/dp/B00000DMBB). He and Beth played a game before bed, which I made them set aside to finish the next day because it was getting late. Beth was almost as reluctant to quit as Noah was. Then while I got Noah ready for bed Beth set up another present, the home planetarium that projects the constellations onto his ceiling, and he went to bed, but not to sleep for a long while. It had been an exciting day.
Noah’s actual birthday was Sunday. When he came into our room at 7:15, he announced, “I’m eight. I’m four plus four. I’m two times four.” I waited to see if he would say he was two the third power, but he didn’t. I guess they haven’t gotten up to exponents in his accelerated math class. (Although at the rate they are going it should be any day now. They’re already doing long division.) Later he decided he wouldn’t really be eight until 6:05 p.m. since that’s when he was born.
We had a much more relaxed day, waiting for 6:05 p.m.. We had leftover cupcakes for breakfast. He opened gifts from us and from family, read, played and did homework. We let him choose dinner and he decided to go out for Indian at Udupi Palace (http://www.udupipalace.com/). He doesn’t actually like most Indian food but he loves mango lassis and paratha so we let him have bread, rice and a beverage for dinner. (It’s not as bad as it sounds. The bread is whole-wheat and the drink has fruit and yogurt in it.) We didn’t actually notice when 6:05 came. It might have been while we were waiting for our food and Noah and Beth were making up a story about a knight and a frost dragon–it breathes ice instead of fire– making their way through a maze toward a cache of golden pearls. It might have been while we were eating or it might have when we were asking the waiter for a match to light Noah’s number eight candle. He had wanted to save it for his real birthday and since there was no cake at this meal he wanted to put it on the bread. The waiter surprised us with a complimentary dish of Indian sweets. The mango burfee was the best, Noah and I agreed. It’s like a bright yellow, fruity fudge. Beth opined that all three desserts were “okay but not chocolate.”
This morning Beth, June and I delivered Swedish fish to Noah’s classroom this for his class party, so now another birthday is behind us. Our boy is eight. It seems like yesterday he was two years old, playing in his new sandbox, or four and flashing me that angelic smile of his, or six and starting to navigate the shifting alliances of elementary school friendships. But I don’t mourn the passage of time or wish it would stand still. I appreciate so many things about my vibrant, creative son as he is now and I’m eager to see what kind of ten year old he will be.