January in Wisconsin is not usually a pretty month. It’s nice on the days the snow is fresh and the wind chill isn’t at arctic levels, but for the most part it’s cold and grey and cold and slushy and cold. But right about now I find myself casting an eye at my new calendar with the wistfulness of the weary. Almost nothing is happening in January. No holidays, no birthdays in our immediate family, no big meals or gifts…. January looks blissfully simple. I can’t wait.
In the meantime, we are in the throes of birthday season again, and this year it’s particularly packed. From mid-November through the end of December we have Quinn’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Mona’s birthday, a memorial service in Ohio for my grandma, a trip to Michigan to see the last group show at my parents’ gallery, Aden’s birthday, Christmas, and New Year’s. Plus there’s a harvest play in there somewhere, a kids’ concert I’m supposed to be in, and a performance of the Messiah that I should be practicing for. I’m not sure when I’m supposed to find gifts for people or mail out cards, but somehow I will get it done. I hope (she said, while looking longingly at all the blank space on the January page of the new calendar).
Anyway, Quinn’s first real birthday party was a success. This year he got to make decisions about his cake and the activities and the guest list. Unfortunately the only good time to have his party was during the middle of the week because the weekends around it were all spoken for with book club and work and a choir concert. I thought it made the most sense to just have Quinn invite a couple of friends over right after half day school and have pizza and cake at the house and let them all play for an hour or two. But my daughters were so upset that I scheduled their brother’s party while the two of them were still in class that I ended up pulling them out at the half day pickup too. At first that seemed a little crazy to me, but I asked myself, what will they remember more? Their brother’s party or a couple of hours of self-directed Montessori education? Heck, it’s Montessori, so the party might even count as a life skills lesson, so win-win! (Yes, my powers of rationalization can be impressive.)
Quinn could not have been happier. He only stopped smiling long enough to blow out the candle on his cake.
(Good grief, my baby is four. FOUR! How does that happen? I swear it was only like a minute ago he looked like this:
Which was awfully cute, too. But he’s even more fun now that he says things like, “Mom, I love you bigger than space!”)
Next we have Mona’s party coming up. Mona has already chosen prospective party locations for the next three or four years. Last year she really wanted it at Chuck E. Cheese’s, which with Ian deployed was great because I didn’t really have to do anything other than show up and pay for pizza. I’d do that every year it was so easy, but now that Mona has that out of her system it probably won’t happen again. This year she wanted a ‘Planet Bounce’ party, which was what a local gymnastics facility used to call its party plan complete with bouncy houses next to the trampoline floors and sponge pit. It’s now called something like ‘Bounce and Beyond’ but Mona is stubbornly sticking to ‘Planet Bounce.’ Whatever you call it, it’s simple, the kids love it, and my only duty is to take care of the food. I asked Mona last night what she wants to serve and she said fruits and vegetables. She suggested celery and then added that she won’t eat any of it. So I told her to pick things she herself would actually eat, and we came up with: bananas, carrots, apples, and string cheese. We may also do some kind of mini sandwich to order deal, where we bring little rolls and peanut butter and jelly and ham and cheese, etc., for those who want some.
The big deal for this party is the cake, which Mona wanted to look like a light purple dragon with silver and gold bits to it. She drew me a picture to help me out, and we went online and looked at other dragon cakes people have come up with to give me some direction. I knew I could make a dragon cake, I just didn’t want to spend hours accidentally making the wrong one. Maybe I was feeling overconfident because my kids and I watch a lot of Cake Boss and it just seems like with enough fondant anything is possible, but I think I did okay. Mona made the wings herself out of paper and put on all the Hershey’s Kisses and sprinkles. I used a devil’s food cake recipe from my mom, and I found recipes for fondant, butter cream frosting, and modeling chocolate online. Creative cakes make me happy, so that’s my favorite part of Birthday Season. I honestly think if I couldn’t make violins, I would be happy designing cool cakes.
By the way, modeling chocolate? My new favorite thing. It’s just 10 oz of chocolate melted and mixed with 1/2 cup of light corn syrup. It feels like clay but you can eat it. (Aden said it tasted just like a Tootsie Roll.) When it gets too hard you just zap it in the microwave for a few seconds and it’s pliable again. I used white chocolate so I could mix it with food coloring, and I’m thinking that chocolate sculpting could be a fun craft activity next rainy day that I have a bunch of extra kids in the house. And little chocolate sculptures made by the kids would be really cute presents or decorations on cupcakes….
The plans for Aden’s party next week are a little undefined at the moment. She wants something at home and quiet. She wants a simple cake and she’s going to help decorate it. I’m a little concerned because her ideas for activities can get intricate and then other kids get bored. At Quinn’s party she ran a game called ‘Pin the Topping on the Pizza’ and it was way too complicated for four-year-olds. I salvaged the game by simply holding children upside down and challenging them to tape the paper topping to their name on the slice of pizza while wiggling them around and making everyone laugh, but it was not the game Aden had envisioned. Aden was good about letting go of her original idea, though, which is new.
In fact, you seldom get to pinpoint certain attitude changes in children, but this one I think I can. The night before Quinn’s party we were putting up streamers by the reflected light of our disco ball and having fun, but something about it didn’t happen the way Aden had pictured it. She went off to her bed to sulk while Quinn and Mona danced in the living room and told their dad where to tape balloons. I went upstairs to talk with Aden. I reminded her that the party wasn’t about her. It was about what made her brother happy because it was his day. If however the streamers got put up made him happy, it was right, and she needed to let it go because she was missing the point. About an hour later when she had joined us again and was putting up more decorations with her siblings, I was listening from another room and heard Mona starting to get picky about something when Aden stopped her. She said evenly, “Mona, this is Quinn’s day. However he wants it is okay and we don’t get to decide.” It was so gratifying to know she actually heard what I said and took it to heart! Too bad it’s so rare that that moment stands out, but I’ll take it.
In any case, for her own party she was thinking about board games or something along those lines. I’m thinking a Pictionary event with teams might work if I can talk her into it. She’s having trouble accepting that some of the party games and activities we did when she was little might not work as well for third graders. I don’t know if her friends are interested in Pin the Tail on the Donkey anymore. We have time to figure something out. We’re going to have everyone make their own mini pizzas, so that will be fun. (And, SSHHH, don’t tell her, but I’m thinking for her present of getting her a pair of roller skates.)
I supposed there’s something to be said for getting all the presents and parties and baking done in one fell swoop at the end of each year, but I see other people planning birthday parties in the spring or summer and I’m always a little jealous. It must be nice not to have all the birthdays smushed together in the winter along with Thanksgiving and Christmas. But we got what we got and it’s the smallest imaginable price to pay considering all we have. I am too lucky for words.
Now excuse me while I go off to do about a million other things (while I dream of January and quiet and a cup of cocoa)….