E called me from school midday last week. Harriet's birthday is next weekend and her mother says they live too far from school to have a party. Can we have the party at our house?
Generally, when I get these calls, there is a lot of background noise. Children screaming on the blacktop kind of noise. E's usually having another conversation at the same time that she's talking to me, and, more often than not, I hear G's voice break in at some point, elaborating on a point. The kids are allowed to use their cell phones at the mid-morning break and at lunchtime, when everyone is outside and everyone is excited in the way that only middle school children who are not in class can be. So I take a Special Forces approach to the calls: answer, take the important information, and hang up.
The important information that I got from E's question was, Can we have friends over this weekend? I checked my interior calendar: weekend free. Yes.
Thanks Mommy bye.
I hung up and replayed the conversation. Then I thought I must have misunderstood. Surely I had not just agreed to host a birthday party for a child I'd never met.
When I picked the girls up in the afternoon, I asked them. What is happening with Harriet? Is it her birthday? I thought if I didn't come out and say birthday party then maybe they wouldn't mention it.
It's her birthday and her mother says they live too far away to have everyone come over for a party so since we live close by we said we'd have it at our house. Like that, but switching between children.
I had known, peripherally, that Harriet's family lived an hour east of the Collège des vignes. While she figures in the girls' stories about school, Harriet's never turned up outside of school for a sleepover or a playdate--I guess they're not playdates any more, are they?--and this was always given as the reason why. Too far to go, too difficult to arrange transportation.
But a birthday party? When we got home from school I checked my parental job description. (I keep it in the top drawer of my desk; I find it's a useful reference, as in when I point out to E and G that, as of their arrival at age 13, it is no longer part of my job description to clean their bathroom sinks. You see, it's not in the description, I say, taking it out to show them. That's why there's a bottle of Monsieur Propre and a sponge in your bathroom cabinet.) There it was, just after Food, Shelter, reasonably un-embarrassing Clothing, Books, Music, and Conversation: Birthday Observance. A sub-heading explained that a full-on party with cake and candles was not mandatory but was, particularly during early adolescence, Strongly Advised.
Apparently Harriet's parents job description was not the same as mine. I briefly entertained the thought of telling G and E that it was absurd for us to throw a birthday party for a child C and I had never even met, and that they should go to school and tell everyone that there had been a misunderstanding, but then couple of other lines in the job description caught my eye. If you say you will do something, then you must do it if you can, it said. And just below: when your children are kind and generous, support them. So I put the job description back in the drawer and went downstairs to plan a birthday party.
Everyone who was invited came. I made spaghetti; the girls and their friend Virginia cleaned the house, made the beds, and baked a cake. There were birthday candles, singing, and presents. The girls slept over--yes, a birthday sleepover party--and, in the morning, C made three dozen pancakes, which they finished. (We made ourselves some toast.)
Throughout the planning and staging of the party, there had been no word from Harriet's parents. Nothing. We wondered at it: did they not know it was a birthday party? did they not know the party was happening at all? Maybe they weren't comfortable speaking English, or French, or just speaking?
Sunday morning the parents began to arrive to collect their daughters. Most of them we knew, some of them we didn't; we shook hands and kissed cheeks when cheeks were offered, and spoke a little English and a little French and smiled a lot. Harriet's mother was one of the last to come. She introduced herself; we shook hands; she came into the kitchen and looked around.
It was nice of your daughters to give Harriet a little birthday party, she said.
Oh, well, they did it all themselves, really, we replied, as we washed the breakfast dishes.
It's too bad that the children don't get to socialize much outside of school. For us, living where we do, it is just too difficult. Harriet takes the bus to school every day because it would take too long for me to drive her. Your girls must take the bus, don't they?
No, I said. They would have to get up much earlier, and walk down to the end of the lane, and it's only a ten minute drive for me to take them to school. Since I'm not working, it's easy.
Oh, said Harriet's mother. I work at home, but it would be too difficult for me to do the driving.
At the end of Babar and His Children, after Pom, Alexander, and Flora have spent the day getting into scrape after scrape, the elephant king sits down on his sofa. The children have finally gone to sleep. Truly it is not easy to bring up a family, Babar says. What I wanted to say to Harriet's mother was this: it is supposed to be difficult. Driving your child to school so that she doesn't have to leave the house before 7 every morning and sit on the regional bus for an hour is one of those difficulties that we sign up for when they're born. As are, by the way, birthday parties.
Calvin Trillin, when asked for his theory on child-rearing, tells people Your children are either the center of your life or they're not. That's up at the top of my parental job description. Sadly, though, there's also something in there about cutting other people some slack. So that's one of my exercises this week, along with being more patient, trying to see the good in the Republican congressional delegation (I'm nothing if not ambitious), and giving Harriet's mother the benefit of the doubt.