Now We Are Six

It was the first day of May. The barista at our local coffeehouse glanced at my receipt before handing it to me and exclaimed, “It’s May already.”

I told her I was very aware of the date since my son would be six in two days. She surprised me by making a sympathetic sound, as if I’d announced he had chicken pox instead of an imminent birthday. I gave her a quizzical look and she said, “Five is so fun. I really liked five on my younger sisters.” She went on to explain that she’s the oldest in a family of six girls and a boy and she let me know in no uncertain terms that five is a better year than six. I guess she’d know. Interestingly, the book we have out of the library on six year olds seems to have the same thesis.

On the morning of his birthday, Noah opened his presents before school. We got him a few things, but the big hits seemed to be the robot kit and the weather-tracking computer program. He and Beth were on the computer looking at global weather forecasts and pictures of real-time cloud cover over the Earth when it was time to get on the bus. Of course, he didn’t want to stop and he left the computer in tears, but Beth said he was cheerful again before they even got off the porch.

That evening I made Noah’s favorite dinner— pancakes— while he started to assemble a robot using a diagram from the instructions. I picked an apple-cottage cheese pancake recipe that looked good and reserved some cottage cheese-free batter for him since he’s a picky eater and I thought he might object to cottage cheese in his pancakes. When he’d finished his pancakes and wanted more, I asked if he wanted to try to cottage cheese ones and to my surprise, not only did he try one, but he liked it, too. After dinner, Beth helped him finish the robot. That night he slept on his top bunk for the first time. (When we got him the bunk bed toward the end of my pregnancy with June we told him he could sleep on the top when he was six and he’s been eagerly awaiting this milestone.) He seemed a little anxious as I tucked him in, but when we asked him if he wanted to change his mind and sleep below, he said no. A few days earlier he had told me that once he was six he wouldn’t need me to lie down with him at night anymore but I didn’t mention this and he didn’t either. There’s such a thing as too much change all at once, and I don’t mean just for him.

The next day, Friday, was Noah’s class party. Beth and I had dentist appointments in the morning and the party in the afternoon and the house to clean for his home party the next day, so she took the whole day off. When we got to Noah’s classroom he was still filling out a language arts worksheet about syllables that most of the other students had finished. He tried to run over to us, but we told him to keep working. He kept glancing up at us and grinning as Beth and the parents of the other birthday celebrant set up the tables and I walked June around the room. I went over to the windowsill to see if his basil seeds had sprouted but there was only moist soil in the clear plastic cup marked “Noah.” Noah had complained to me earlier about his non-starter seeds so I wanted to see they were making any progress. Most of the other cups sported healthy-looking sprouts of various species but there were a few other barren plots. I was glad of that, at least.

When the tables were set up, Señora A told Noah he could finish his worksheet on Monday and he joined his classmates at the tables. The room was noisy with the chatter of fifteen five and six-year-olds, almost all of it in Spanish. When “Feliz Cumpleaños” was sung, the candles blown out, the cupcakes eaten and the juice boxes drunk, it was time to leave. Noah was excited to be walking home with us instead of riding the bus. As he gathered up his backpack and lunchbox, Beth handed Señora A a signed form (a vague but ominous-sounding communication from his school) indicating we would be attending the meeting of Noah’s “educational management team” later this month. And then Señora A asked if we could stay after school to talk. Oh no, not today, I thought. Can’t he just have his party and go home? But we stayed.

Noah had a run of almost two weeks’ good behavior. He even had a perfect 18-point day earlier in the week. We knew he’d gotten into trouble (with a substitute) for knocking over chairs in the classroom and missed recess for it the day before, but we thought in general things were going pretty well. And they were, until that day. He got low marks in all categories, but there were two particularly worrisome incidents. He got into a tussle with a girl over a pencil (hers) and he pulled Ruby’s hair, hard enough so that a strand of it came out in his hand. I reminded Señora A and Noah to speak in English so Beth could follow, but they kept forgetting and the conversation slid back and forth between the two languages. Meanwhile, June, who had been cooped up in her car seat or stroller or held on my lap in the classroom most of the day, was getting squirmy and starting to cry. I walked her around the room, letting her play with an abacus, then settling in the block corner where she played while I tried to listen. I can’t believe he pulled Ruby’s hair, I kept thinking. Finally, it was over. “Feliz Cumpleaños,” Señora A said as we left.

At home, Noah helped me hose off our pollen-coated porch and then settled in to watch television. I sat with him and watched June crawl around the room while Beth cleaned. At 5:30, we set off for a Thai restaurant in Silver Spring. Because Beth and I went out for Thai the night I went into labor with Noah, we have a tradition of going out for Thai around his birthday. But Noah, worn out from the excitement of his party, upset about the meeting that followed—who knows? —didn’t want to go. He said he wanted pizza. Somehow we talked him into getting into the car. It wasn’t until we got to the restaurant that he completely melted down. He was under the table, crying, demanding to know why we came to this restaurant with no food (i.e. no pizza). It was a scene less surprising than it would have been a month ago.

Beth escorted him out of the restaurant, telling me what to order for her. They were gone a long time. The fried tofu appetizer arrived and I ate a third of it, saving the rest for Beth and Noah. They came back as the rest of food was coming. Noah seemed cheerful and wolfed down the tofu and several plates of noodles. It was as if nothing had happened. (Later I asked Beth what she did. She said they just sat outside by the fountain while he cried. He was quiet for a while, then the storm out of his system, he said, “Let’s go back inside.”) After dinner we got smoothies (for me and June) and ice cream (for Beth and Noah) listened to some street musicians, then we went to the turf, where Noah rode his scooter until it was time to go home.

The party was the next day, at 5 p.m. We had to schedule it late in the day to accommodate the busy lives of Noah’s friends, filled with soccer practice, play dates and the party of the classmate who shares his birthday. My mother arrived in the early afternoon. When Noah opened her presents, rather ungraciously, Beth and I decided he would open his friends’ presents after the party, rather than during, as he had suggested.

Mom helped clean the patio furniture and frost the cake. Beth decorated it with a white cloud outlined in blue frosting set in a blue sugar sprinkle sky, since the party had a weather theme. I was nervous since this was Noah’s first party with children I did not (for the most part) know very well. To make matters worse, Noah had announced the day before that one of the guests was not his friend, but his “enemy.” (The boy and his friends have been stealing Noah and his group’s ball at recess. The ball is an armadillo in an elaborate fantasy game, set in a castle, they play every day— but that’s another story.) I wondered how everyone would get along. Beth, as is her habit when she’s under stress, got cranky. It didn’t help that she had to make the cake twice, since she remembered (as the first one was in the oven) that she’d forgotten the sugar. This threw off her schedule. Somehow, though, the baking and the cleaning and the decorating all got done. Beth attached the balloons (one in the shape of the number six and one that said “Feliz Cumpleaños”) to the gate and arranged the colorful wooden letters that spelled “NOAH” (a birthday gift from my sister) on the top of the porch stairs. I arranged the inflated plastic sun, clouds, raindrops, etc. in a path along the porch floor and wrote “Welcome” and “Bienvenidos” in chalk on the sidewalk.

The day before the party the forecast called for a high in the 70s and sun. On the day of the party the forecast was 60s and sun, but all afternoon it was overcast with occasional sprinkles and the temperatures never got out of the 50s. Nevertheless, we decided to keep as much of the party as possible outside. As the guests began to arrive, most of the parents made the same joke about such unpredictable weather at a weather party. But the kids didn’t seem to mind. The early arrivals grabbed the inflated weather shapes and a spontaneous weather parade formed. At one point, Maxine dropped hers and took up the sign in front of our house that reads “Peace, Love and Marriage for All Our Neighbors: Marriage is a Human Right” and marched with it at the head of the parade. (I just love Maxine.) At one point, Noah left the parade, saying there was “too much excitement out there.” Instead he helped Mom carry the presents inside. Soon after, he came back outside and was able to join the fun.

Around 5:25, all the guests had arrived except for Ruby, and Noah said glumly, “I don’t think Ruby is coming.” I thought he was probably right. Her father had already complained to the school about Noah rough-housing with her and I was afraid the hair-pulling incident might have put either Ruby or her dad over the edge. I decided I would tell Noah why I thought she hadn’t come after the party was over, to give him an idea of the seriousness of his actions. Still, I was sad for him, because Ruby is his best friend.

When the party moved to the backyard, I had my hands full getting one of the boys, (whom Noah reports is the only one to get in trouble as much as he does) off the porch. This was a scene that was repeated every time the kids moved: from outside to inside to make a weather wheel craft (you spin it to show the day’s weather), back outside for pizza and then inside for cake and the rest of the party once the weather got decisively wet and cold. The boy, dreamy and easily distracted, reminded me of Noah, but even more so. I must have been shepherding the dreamer from one place to another or nursing June when I missed a conversation at the sandbox in which some of the other party guests confronted Noah’s “enemy” about being on a different “team” than most of the others. Beth reports she got them to agree that the teams only apply at recess and here everyone was on the same team. She didn’t feel up to challenging their whole social hierarchy in one evening.

Around 6:30, just as cake was being served, Ruby and her father arrived. Quickly it became apparent that he intended to stay. Honestly, I couldn’t blame him. When Noah finished nursery school last spring there were a couple boys, the rowdier ones, I decided not to make any summer play dates with, because I thought they’d be a bad influence. Who knew how soon my own intelligent, charming, up-until-recently well-behaved son would be the troublemaker, the one with whom you don’t leave your child unsupervised if you can help it.

Ruby didn’t want any cake so I assured her father it didn’t have any eggs (she’s allergic) but she still didn’t want any. After a while she began sneezing and her dad asked if we had cats or dogs. “Two cats,” Beth answered. Turns out she’s allergic to dander as well. After a half hour her eyes were itchy and they made a hasty retreat.

When everyone was gone and Noah was bathed and the guests’ presents were opened and it was time for bed we asked Noah if he had a good time at his party. His hazel eyes shone. “I wish it was a dream,” he said. “So it could happen all over again.”

Sunday morning we ran into my friend Jim and his partner Kevin at the farmers’ market. A couple weeks ago, Jim (who’s childless) told me that Noah was “getting old enough to have interesting problems.” He wanted to know how the party went. I considered: no meltdowns, either on Noah’s part or his guests’, the enemy was temporarily taken into the fold, the dreamer didn’t wander into traffic, Noah’s lady love showed up and he wants to do it all over again, just like it happened. Pretty well, I said.

That night, up in Noah’s top bunk he told me that he and Señora A were going to plant new seeds. “That sounds like a good idea,” I said, “To start over.” I gave him one last squeeze before climbing down the ladder. “Now seeds,” I thought, “start growing!”