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In The Hostage Zone



What is a home without children? Quiet. — Henny Youngman

I didn’t even have a chance to finish saying “Yo” before Jane cut me off — “Help,” she said. I could tell by the panic in her voice that this wasn’t her usual “Can you Google something for me?” call. (According to everyone in my family, I’m faster than 411 and more helpful than a GPS.)

“I’m freaking out and I don’t know what to do,” Jane said.

“Just calm down and tell me what’s up, and if I can help, I will,” I said.

“They canceled the jumper.”

“Well, yeah, it’s supposed to rain tomorrow. Wait,” I said, as Jane’s predicament became clearer to me. “You’re worried because the kids’ll be disappointed at Bella’s birthday party, right? No problem. I mean, I agree it would be nicer for the adults if they did their screaming outside, but we’ll all just have to deal while they play inside.”

“You don’t get it,” Jane said. She was right. Sure, I thought my niece would be disappointed not to have a giant bouncy castle in my mother’s backyard for her birthday party, but wouldn’t there be plenty of friends and presents and cake to distract her? She was a seven-year-old with the attention span of a squirrel.

“I was hoping you’d have some ideas for activities,” Jane said.

“For kids? Are you serious?”

“Come on, don’t be like that. You’re always throwing parties. All parties have activities.”

“The only organized ‘activity’ that went on at my last shindig was the game ‘Here, now try this cheese with that wine,’” I said. Rather than the laugh I expected, Jane sighed heavily — an indication that she was more stressed about the situation than I’d thought. “Sorry, sis, but I’ve got nothing,” I said. “I’m sure if you just put all the kids in a room, they’ll find a way to entertain themselves.”

I remember my fifth birthday party with fondness. My mother made a cake in the shape (and colors) of Bugs Bunny. At one point, she corralled all of the neighborhood kids into a room to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Aside from those details, my memory is a blur of running around, eating cake, and opening presents. The adults existed in the same space but another dimension.

The next morning, I called to see how Jane was faring at my mother’s. “Please tell me you’re on your way,” she said, sounding just as frazzled as she had the day before. When I asked why she wanted me to arrive two hours early, Jane responded, “I could use some help setting up the stations.” Stations? I figured it best not to ask questions and told my sister I’d get there as soon as I could.

I don’t make it to all of my nieces’ and nephews’ birthday parties. Outside of receiving a shiny wrapped gift from Aunt Barb and Uncle David, as typical kids, they couldn’t care less whether or not another adult is standing in the periphery. As for me, I find kids’ birthday parties monotonous — parents make banal conversation (mostly about their children) while youngsters play “Who can scream the loudest,” and the entire time I’m counting the minutes until the cake is cut because once everybody’s had a piece, it’s okay to bail.

The main reason David and I planned to attend Bella’s birthday party was because we’d been out of town for weeks, and it would be an opportunity to see the kids and catch up with my family.

I found Jane looking frayed in my mother’s family room. “I need help figuring out which station goes where,” she said.

On the coffee table beside her were several signs printed on mustard-colored paper. “Bracelet-making, fake tattoos, Wii-singing, necklaces, rocker makeup,” I read aloud. “Jesus, Jane, how many stations are there? You really went above and beyond with your planning – it’s not like this is one of your doctor’s conferences.”

“Can you just — ”

“Yes, okay, sorry,” I said. I enlisted David’s help. He distributed balloons throughout the house while I assisted Jane in setting up the activity stations, or as I referred to them, “child hostage zones.” I mused over how much more time, money, and energy went into throwing a kid’s party than an adult’s party. Terrified of the possibility that the children would have to spend a minute without being entertained, Jane had planned the event with precision.

My sister’s work paid off. When kids arrived, they squealed as they discovered each of the stations. Some little girls gravitated toward the make-up station to apply rock-star inspired designs on each other’s faces. Others went right for the fake tattoo/bracelet-making table and, as intended, the smaller ones drifted toward the only table they could reach, where they could play with stickers and bead necklaces.

Along with the children came the adults. Seven seems to be an age on the cusp, when the little ones are old enough to choose their friends but too young to be left at parties without their parents. Jane did have friends and family in attendance, but not all of Bella’s friends’ parents fit into those categories. They were nice, and they all seemed to get along with one another, but it was clear to me that these people weren’t planning to get a sitter and head out to dinner together anytime soon. The collection of adults I had not met reminded me of the people I see at the dog park I pass on my morning walk. While their dogs frolic, some owners chat with each other; others keep to themselves and follow their pets around the park.

“How much longer do we have to stay?” David asked after a conga line of little girls went shrieking by. He’d asked this question a few times during the previous few hours, but each time, I’d pushed to stay — after the singing and cake…after the piñata is beaten to a pulp.

“She’s going to open her presents next,” I said.

“Do you really think she’s even going to notice if we’re here? We’ve just been standing here, in this spot, for the last half hour.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Vamonos.”

Jane caught us by the door. “What, the childless people want to leave?” she joked.

“That’s child-free,” I said. “You did an awesome job, Jane. You’re a good mom. These kids are loving every bit of it. But these adults,” I pointed to David and myself, “want to go far away from all of this noise, to where nothing but wine, cheese, and silence awaits us.” ■

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