Real silver and fine china glistened in the afternoon sun as shafts of light slanted through the arbor onto the table.
The centerpiece was a lush floral display--the petals of pink roses, stargazer lilies and peonies perfectly opened, speaking volumes about forethought and execution. Delicate heart-shaped sandwiches of white bread, filled with pink cream cheese, rose in lovely mounds from platters. Crustless turkey sandwiches, too, with basil mayonnaise. In bowls, fat, long-stemmed strawberries and heaps of whipped cream. And Earl Grey tea of course, pots of it, sweetened and lightened and sipped from vintage cups.
This was a party--and not, I imagine, the first--designed around a dress; in this case, a pink satin smock with white lace at the collar and a hand-rolled undulating hem that imbued its owner, an angel named Hannah, with a dreamy quality as she flitted about.
From the head of the table, Hannah commanded her servants, a rather larger, much less well-dressed group. Hannah’s guests had thoughtfully been provided with tiaras and magic wands of their own. As they ate, they chatted desultorily about playthings.
Once the last crumbs were licked from the plates, Hannah led her guests to the lawn, where an interlude of musical entertainment allowed the food to digest most pleasurably.
After that, to the house, where the hostess fell upon her birthday presents as ferociously as a 4-year-old child. Which would have been appalling, except for the fact that Hannah is 4.
I sat on the sidelines, sipping tea and eating scones, content to watch the little girls play high tea until I realized with an icy frisson in my bones that the bar on birthday parties had just been hiked once more.
With only three months to go until my child turns 4, I am already hopelessly behind in the party planning department, let alone the saving-money-to-finance-the-party department. You can’t just do cake and party hats and peanuts anymore. There are Moonbounces to consider. And petting zoos. Not to mention clowns, caterers and cartoon figures come to life.
Do they even give second mortgages for birthday parties?
Why, oh, why had I not learned my lesson back in March, when darling little Tommy turned 4?
Tommy’s mother had begun planning his party in August. She had settled on the extremely politically incorrect theme of “Wild Indians,” then spent months scouring the American West for items to put in goody bags, which were, in and of themselves, works of art. (Each bag was adorned with a sepia-toned photograph of Tommy astride a horse in the desert, planted next to a real-live, uh, Native American.)
For the goodies, Tommy’s mom told me, she’d stopped “at every reservation between here and Arizona,” buying up wooden flutes and silver bracelets and other authentic trinkets for tots.
Tommy’s mom also bought every party planning book on the market, then ignored them, especially the advice about limiting the number of guests to the child’s age, plus one.
Instead of five kids, there were 15. And there were games. And crafts. And pony rides in the “crack alley” behind the house (where, last year, a waiter from 72 Market passed around hors d’oeuvres on a silver tray).
And a cake, I kid you not, that looked like a miniature diorama from the Natural History museum, featuring white fondant tepees airbrushed with turquoise and orange lightning bolts, filled with chocolate mousse cake.
And, generally speaking, at least one child bawling at any given time.
“I think Tommy was in tears at least five times that day,” says his mom, who admits to spending $1,000 on the party. “Looking back at the videotape, there was not a huge amount of smiles emanating from the kid. The games with any competitive edge were really hard. Musical chairs was a complete fiasco. I think I had eight kids in tears on that one.
“What I did was, I over thought it,” she says. “My husband was calling me ‘Martha-on-Meth.’ I have gone over this a million times in my mind. I think I should have dumped the games and gone with a clown.”
Complicating matters further was the lavish spread of Tex-Mex food for the parents of the guests. I spent a lot of time with a margarita, rehashing the pathetically simplistic pin~ata highlight of my daughter’s last birthday party and reminding myself that I could and should enjoy Tommy’s party without feeling like a complete failure as a mother.
Hannah’s moms swear they’re going to Shakey’s for her next party.
And Tommy’s mom says she’s thinking about a “drop-off” party--no adults--with six kids and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Myself, I’m weighing the pros and cons of a second pin~ata. I’m even thinking in terms of new party hats instead of recycling the old ones. The next few months are going to be hellish.
The birthday party pressure is on.
* Robin Abcarian’s column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.