Birthdays are pernicious little things – the older we get, the less appealing they become and yet still they stalk, tip-toeing up behind us with an ageist agenda. But I remember birthdays that, despite their wintery provenance, were suffused in a halcyon glow and the softly-lit memories of childhood, celebrations rife with love and laughter, and old orange boxes spilling recycled paper and spent sparklers.
To celebrate not losing me in the supermarket each year, my parents would cast aside the prosaic traditions of old – cake, cards, sugar-spun chaos and a rousing battle of pass the parcel – and instead dress up in wild-haired wigs and 7″ flares, serve ham and salad to a tribe of seven-year-olds (with no scent of jelly or trifle or ice cream), and lead stirring renditions of the theme to The Muppet Show…
But while these memories fuel a wistful nostalgia, they cast a razor-sharp perspective on the modern cult of kids’ birthday celebrations. In the searing light of the immediate, the cutting edge of ‘now’, kids’ parties routinely feature absurd extravagance – from baroque-inspired edible gold-leaf table decorations to glitter-spewing unicorn balloons, from disco-dancing for three-year-olds – squealing in sequins – at the Ivy, to a gift registry that specifies which brand of e-reader little Grayson would prefer.
Nursing my horror (as if it were dying of shame) at having to accompany the Tin Lid to these prodigal parades, doused in the sodden hysteria of little darlings denied the sacrificial last whack of the pinata, and ambushing weekends like weakened prey, I am in denial of the ‘new normal’.
The party’s off.
So, armed with a four-fingered beaver and the Tin Lid’s bestie – a free-spirited hybrid beauty, part clown part gypsy, with luminous eyes and a child’s innocence (which on closer inspection is adeptly skewered by a shrewd sense of ratbaggery) – we hit the road for the Great Sixth Birthday, a road trip into the abyss, beyond the rabid squall of an ever-evolving birthday culture.
It should be mentioned that the Bestie is averse to kids’ parties too. Here she is moonlighting as a multi-hair-hued princess, in her other incarnation as Kids’ Party Entertainer:
It didn’t take much to convince the birthday boy. In fact, the words: “Gem’s coming” and “Dad bought snakes” sufficed, even with the dawning realisation that the vertiginous pile of plastic commonly associated with little-known school friends and the last-minute K-Mart dash would be missing.
OK Mum, but can we take the Beaver? And have a midnight feast with Vegemite on toast and hot chocolate?
Sure we can darl’, because this is a journey for you, that we get to celebrate too, minus the clean-up and the chocolate-crackle comedown.
First up, the greatest show on earth, complete with giant popcorn and sadistic clowns. The Bestie had to hold my hand – as a child of the ’70s, I am cautiously terrified of clowns (you can’t show too much fear, obviously. They jack up on that stuff…)
Then, with not a dead fairy pinned to white sliced in sight, we head south on rain-slicked urban streets, until the sky peels open its soul to reveal sparkling stars in an ocean of black. How easy it is to forget the true night sky, and fall for the acid-washed version put on for humanity’s seething mass, for whom bleeding light steals the firmament.
To celebrate we stop at a neon-gilded servo and eat hot chips.
Before the back seat falls quiet:
In time-honoured tradition, we have found a “little house”, a generic home for much of the Tin Lid’s breathy excitement – cupboards and carpets and broiling hot air, bunk beds and pillow fights and dens made of sheets. I revel in unmade beds and crumbs on the floor, teetering towers of forsaken shop-bought packaging and countless tea-towels.
The Cowboy likes the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and the Bestie has spotted the spa…
His birthday bleeds into a new day, the lights of the little house dim (It turns out running the spa, toaster, microwave and air conditioning at once puts strain on what can only be described as a paltry system), and I am content to leave the thick dusting of hot chocolate to get better acquainted with a synthetic carpet.
At some point, the Tin Lid had requested a science party. In the knowledge that science parties often cause roof damage, the decision was made to take the party to a space so inherently scientific it vibrates with barely controlled kineticism.
He discovered that the air organ can be played with one’s head…
Spent an hour mastering coffee-cup flight,
Investigated heat hands and jazz hands,
And won sartorial awards in a boilersuit. He also hurled his small frame down a 20ft drop, freefalling like a boss.
Ultimately, though, the highlight of the Great Sixth Birthday is the little house and the treasures it holds. Set in the desolate heart of a Soviet-inspired wasteland, it is made of plastic and cunningly disguised as one of its siblings/ spawn (the true nature of this relationship remains shrouded).
There is much on offer, from the well-stocked reception shop – “of course you can have a Paddle Pop darl’, just try not to get the drips on your scarf and gloves…” – to the fire hydrant, from the multifunction space to the dining hall, all feathered with signs, as subtle as an ibis wearing a trout.
This motel home has a utilitarian beauty, sharp lines over clear dictates – footwear must be worn in the dining hall – frosty grass speckled with oak leaves, a phone box to clatter open and shut, and a natty section of barbed wire between the site and the C3 Church next door, presumably to prevent the Christians getting in.
The Tin Lid shows his deep appreciation for the post-mid-century faux asbestos architecture by taking pictures of his feet and other lenses:
But in its decent simplicity – cold breath that crackles with life; a small hand curled into mine; an overly ambitious round of pin the tail on the possum – it wholly beats X-Box dancing games and over-excited children’s performers high on red cordial and strobe lighting. Although we fail to resist the temptation of Twister…
The excruciating idiosyncrasies of children’s birthday parties – “do I invite the whole class? Should I get The Magnificent Man of Stripes or just wing it? Why do we not have a working stereo for pass the parcel? How many splintered pieces of dollar-shit gifts do I have to include in the damn parcel? Fuck! The fucking fairy bread! Can I start drinking now?” – remain at bay.
In fact, by the time we hit the cake display in the retro splendour of the Paragon Cafe, heartbeat of a sleepy town’s main drag, talk has turned to next year’s not-birthday, and how many pieces of banoffi pie a six-year-old can have (as opposed to a five-year-old)…
Six apparently, despite a single piece of said pie being the size of his newly grown head.
As we thread our way home along chugged arteries amid his long-thrown snores, the Cowboy and I make a pact – a deal to ensure there is always an option for the ‘new normal’. Because it is here, in the shadows of convention – clattered full of little houses, midnight feasts, spontaneous frivolity and greasy-spoon roadside diners – that we belong.
It’s time to drop the wishing wells and catered hors d’oeuvres, time to axe the multiple entertainers and the lavish party bags. I’m begging here. Please move on from the marquees and pony rides with white-coated waiters and retreat back into the world of pass-the-parcel and chocolate crackles.
Shauna Anderson, Mamamia.com.au