Into the Woods

Late Friday afternoon I called Beth at work to find out what kind of toppings she wanted on the pizza I was about to order and we started talking about a problem she was having at work. After a while she said she was leaving it behind and coming home, where she would spend the weekend making a tree-shaped cake and turning the living room into a forest for June’s birthday party.

“It’ll be fun,” I said encouragingly and she agreed.

And it was fun, but also a lot of work, especially for Beth, who hurt her back on Saturday and wasn’t feeling well, but nevertheless soldiered on with decorations and baking.  There was more decorating for this party than any other we’ve done because June’s oft stated goal for the party was for the guests feel “like they’re walking into a forest” on arriving. It sounded like a high bar.

So of course, preparations had begun weeks earlier. At first June said she wanted a fairies party and I thought that would be a nice easy theme, but then she changed her mind to forest. I was initially doubtful, but a quick visit to a party company website made me realize we could mix and match supplies from various party themes to make an eclectic forest party.  June said she wanted it to be a spooky forest, so we found a spider piñata, bats to hang from the ceiling, owl plates and napkins, stuffed owls and owl tattoos for the goody bags, along with frog finger puppets and magic worms.  Do you remember these? They are brightly colored, furry worms with nylon strings attached that allow you to weave them through your fingers. I’m pretty sure they were around in our day, as both Beth and I found their slithery movement evocative when Noah demonstrated their use.

A couple weeks before the party, and after such extensive consultations between June and her friend Megan that I quipped that Megan was the equivalent of June’s maid of honor, the two girls spent part of a play date making paper animals—two foxes, a squirrel, a chipmunk, a moose and a bat—to decorate the living room.  Noah contributed an illustration of a bear, printed out on several pieces of computer paper.

There were two trips to a party supply store, one the weekend before the party for more goody bag favors and decorations, and one the day before the party for balloons.  Over the course of the weekend, we slowly transformed the living room into a forest.  There were strings of butterflies hanging from the ceiling and a line of bats dangling from the beam between the living and dining rooms. Some of our Halloween decorations (the giant spider on its web and the raven) emerged from their boxes in the basement for an unusual late winter holiday.  June took a dark blue blanket and arranged it into a river on the living room carpet, complete with a stuffed frog and turtle.  But the crowning glory was the two trees Beth and the kids made out of cardboard and three different shades of green crepe paper. Finally, June and I waited to see if the cold, cloudy weather on party day would turn to rain but a few hours before the party when it hadn’t, we chalked two hollow trees on the sidewalk leading up to the porch. June’s had an owl perched on a branch and its nest on another branch.

Saturday Beth baked the cake, a lemon cake at June’s request, and Sunday she carved it into a tree shape and frosted it.  It was, as always, a feat of artistry. I told her if not for the children she’d never had realized her gift for cake decorating.

The party was Sunday afternoon, coincidentally Saint Patrick’s Day.  We were having six days before June’s actual birthday because the real date is the first day of spring break and we learned our lesson about planning a party during break when she turned four and half her guests couldn’t come.  (We forgot the other lesson of that party, which was to check for soccer conflicts, so Megan missed the first game of the season in order to come—June’s not playing soccer this spring so it slipped our minds.)  In honor of the holiday, June selected leprechaun hats for all her guests, plus herself and Noah. She handed them out as soon as guests started arriving.

Once everyone had arrived, we split the guests into two groups by having them draw slips of paper from a witch’s hat that either said “Butterfly Joy” or “Flapping Owls.”  The butterflies went to the living room to play a co-operative board game called Birds of Summer and the owls went to the dining room to work on a craft kit called Forest Friends, an early birthday present from me.  (The board game we already had. In fact, I think it was a gift Noah got for his seventh birthday.)

The kids and I had played the game on Friday afternoon so Noah and I, who hadn’t played it in years, could reacquaint ourselves with the rules and so June, who’d never played before, could decide if she liked it well enough to play it at the party.  The object of the game is to build birds’ nests and defend them from predators. Everyone works together and you all win if more nests are saved than lost at the end of the game. Noah ran this game twice, explaining it to each group and patiently helping them with rules and strategy as they played. The first group seemed to enjoy it and did very well; the second group lost interest before they managed to finish but they played most of a game. There was only one nest left in question when the game dissolved.

Meanwhile, over in the dining room I helped the other girls get the forest animal craft started. You punch out the pieces (which make a deer, raccoon, fox, tree, bush, and mushroom) decorate them by number with different colored foam squares and jewel stickers and then fit the pieces together and arrange them into a tableaux.  This activity proved quite popular with both groups. (And one of the guests commented she had the unicorn version at home.) The only disappointment was that I had to keep telling the girls (one in particular) that they could not take the completed pieces home because they’d been working on them together and there was no fair way to assign them.  Also, the kit wasn’t quite finished when they stopped and I knew June would want to finish it and arrange it the whole scene herself.

The next activity was Pin the Legs on the Spider.  Pin the Tail on the Cat had been such a hit at June’s last party this was an obvious choice.  June painted the spider and legs herself a week or so before the party.  Apparently there’s almost nothing as funny as watching your blindfolded friends stumble toward the door or into the birthday girl’s mother while holding out a painted spider leg with tape attached.  Eventually each participant found (or was gently guided to) the target and in the end the spider had legs all over it, though only two coming out of the side of its body at a remotely realistic angle. One was Talia’s, and the other one was Noah’s but his blindfold slipped so he could see what he was doing. He claimed it wasn’t cheating because it fell on its own, but some of June’s guests disagreed (with more laughter than rancor, though).

Next they took turns whacking at a purple spider hanging from the dogwood tree. This was June’s first party at which the piñata was not broken by an adult or an older sibling.  Some time during the second or third round, once there were several promising cracks in it, Goldie took a good whack at it and it split open in a very satisfying way, spilling its booty of candy and little plastics bugs and glow-in-the-dark aliens all over the ground.  No adult help needed. “They’re getting big,” Beth noted, half-sadly.

Next it was inside for cake and ice cream.  We ran out of activities about twenty minutes before the designated end of the party. This was new, too. I’m more used to parents arriving while the kids are still eating cake, or hitting the piñata.  Maybe six and seven year olds take less wrangling to get from one activity to the next than little kids or maybe I just didn’t plan enough, but they seemed to enjoy running around like maniacs in the yard so it all ended well.

Megan was the last guest to leave and she really wanted June to open her presents while she was still there, so she did, finding a stuffed raccoon that makes a squeaking noise, a ribbon on a stick for twirling and a t-shirt with a cat on a bicycle.  When Megan had left June opened the rest of her presents and after a brief intermission in which she finished her poster about England due at school the next day, she spent the rest of the afternoon and evening twirling the ribbon stick, finishing the mosaic animals, coloring a cupcake-shaped purse, playing two rounds of Operation with her brother and mothers, playing with the My Little Pony figures, and testing out the homemade lavender-scented foot pillow.  At bedtime, she was begging to play a round of Crazy Faces (a Crazy Eights type game) but all good things must come to an end, even birthday party days.

Shortly before she got into bed, she reminded us, “Just because my party’s over it doesn’t mean my birthday is over.”  And it’s not. On the first day of spring break she will open her presents from us and from extended family, and then we’ll drive to the beach. I think we’ll get cupcakes from a bakery there to celebrate.  Some time in between, probably Friday, she will take a bag of frog finger puppets and owl tattoos to share with her classmates and they will sing “Happy Birthday” to her in two languages.

In the morning she worked with her new stamp kit to make notes for a couple of her friends and for me and for Beth. Mine says, “YOU ARE MY LOVE,” with two roses below it. Softened, I let her wear her red cloth dress coat to school, even though I have previously tried to reserve it for special occasions. Anyway, I have an inkling that every day between the party and her actual birthday is going to be a special occasion. After all, you only turn seven once.