Yesterday I attended a birthday party for the about-to-be-11-years-old daughter of some friends. Arriving at the party, I was reminded of a similar one for my own sons years ago. We had the party at the same riverside park, where we celebrated several birthdays. Our boys’ birthdays are separated by one month (and five years), so when they were young, we split the difference and held joint parties.
The scene was not unlike that of our sons’ parties, except the children were mostly girls, whereas ours were predominantly boys. We arrived a bit late; cake just had been served, and faces showed traces of chocolate. Someone called out “presents!”, and a tight huddle formed around the birthday girl, barely leaving her elbow room, as she opened her gifts and the group appraised them. As swiftly as the gifts were opened, once it was a fait accompli, the children ran back to the river.
The river, the Blanco, had more water than usual in it for this time of year. Some years we had forwent having our sons’ party there because the water was so low we were concerned about its cleanliness. The landscape of the river has changed since those days—two record floods in 2015 have scoured much of the banks down to the limestone. Amazingly, a stand of cypresses remains intact. The scene is still beautiful yet a reminder of the power of natural forces.
Just as there were years ago, lots of parents were at the party—parents with infants, parents with school-age children, the grandparents of the birthday girl—family and friends and new school acquaintances enjoying a lovely day at the river.
Of all the parties we have had there, why had I thought of this particular one? Because it was fifteen years ago, and yesterday I remembered it as just a day or two after 9/11. (Upon checking, I learned it was five days after.) Like so many of us, I proceeded through that day in a fog. After reaching my father in Brooklyn immediately after the attack, I could not reach anyone else in my New York family—my mother who lived in lower Manhattan, my sister who worked there, or my brother who lived on the west side with a clear view of the towers. I could not watch the live reports, but I listened to the radio.
I remember we deliberated with other parents whether we should cancel the party and decided nothing good would come from doing so; furthermore, we weren’t ready to explain the depth of what happened to what would have been disappointed children. I went ahead buying the food, little party favors. And then the day of the party the families came, the adults still numb. We could barely speak, knowing that our world, our children’s world, had changed forever. But we all went through the motions. There was playing in the river, a barbecue, birthday cake, the gifts, and before the party was over, the piñata. I’m sure we all laughed, as we did every year, about the first birthday party I had hosted in Texas, when I thought piñatas came filled with candy, and the young children were baffled when nothing fell from the enormous hole they had made.
Yesterday I watched the parents of the birthday girl work to keep the flow of the party going—it is a job, to manage the food, make sure no gifts are lost, make sure no child is left at the river unattended. This party will probably pass unremarked in the memories of these girls, just as that one fifteen years ago has probably joined a blur of river-birthday-party memories in the minds of my boys. Yet it remains with me, when we carried on with everyday life in the face of so much loss.