I drove back and forth to the Wynnewood Giant three times over the course of two days, piling water bottles and juice boxes, bags of pretzels, paper plates and plastic utensils, into the trunk of our minivan. I dragged our cooler from its hibernation in the garage, hosed it out and filled it with ice. I obsessively checked the weater on my phone, my anxiety spiking each time I saw that the chance of thunderstorms predicted for Saturday had risen. I felt like I was preparing to evacuate my family in advance of a hurricane.
But, no, I was merely getting ready for our youngest daughter’s fifth birthday party at General Wayne Park — and praying that it wouldn’t rain. During one of our first visits to the supermarket days earlier, Jane and I had leafed through the cumbersome book of custom sheet cakes, a catalogue offering everything from Hello Kitty to “Despicable Me” designs, but not the “Frozen” one she had set her sights on when she had started planning her birthday six months ago.
“Oh, we have that one behind the counter, it’s so popular,” the woman helping us said.
Jane and I exhaled a simultaneous sigh of relief. Then my daughter escorted me to the aisle where the bubbles were stocked and counted as we dumped enough for her five friends, plus their siblings, into our cart.
“And remember the balls at Old Navy,” Jane instructed as we steered our minivan toward the next store. ”We’ll see how much they cost,” I said, delighted when I realized that Jane had in mind the 25-cent rubber bouncies that tumbled out of an oversized gumball machine as we fed in a handful of quarters.
These frantic preparations behind us, the day of Jane’s party dawned dark and ominous. Oblivious to the thunderclouds hovering overhead, threatening to ruin her festivities, Jane rose a little after 5 a.m. and demanded help putting on her Elsa costume.
“Can we pick up the cake yet?” she asked.
I wondered if the supermarket was even open — and how we were going to survive until the party started at 10:30 a.m. By 8 a.m. I felt fortified enough by coffee, and annoyed enough by my daughter’s pestering, that I tucked her Elsa costume up around her legs and snapped her into her car seat.
“What a pretty princess!” an elderly woman exclaimed as Jane trailed behind me toward the bakery counter, clutching her wand in her gloved hands. The cake now safely stashed in the trunk with the rest of our provisions, we swung home to pick up my husband and Jane’s twin 8-year-old brother and sister.
“No fair Jane gets presents,” Griffin complained on the way to the park, as I checked the latest update on my phone’s weather app, wishing I hadn’t since it was now predicting a 60 percent chance of rain. As we tried to find a parking spot on the street clotted with cars in front of General Wayne, I also wished that I had examined the township’s Little League schedule before I had picked this playground.
Too late now, I told myself.
And so we lugged bags of snacks and party favors, as well as the cake and the cooler, toward the one unoccupied picnic table at the far side of the lawn. Having set everything out, we had nothing left to do but listen to our nearly 5-year-old relentlessly interrogate us about when her friends were going to show up.
”They’re probably just having trouble finding parking,” I said, though by 10:45 a.m. I was starting to worry that my pre-party anxiety may have caused me to muddle the dates. But then we spotted the first diminutive guest arrive, bedecked in a gauzy pink gown. Jane dashed to her friend, her Elsa cape billowing out behind her. And as the other princesses and their older siblings trickled in, my spirits lifted. The rain held off as clusters of kids took breaks from the jungle gym and swings to gobble up handfuls of salty snacks, washed down with lemonade.
Our older daughter disappeared into the trees on the hill with a couple of friends. They emerged an hour or so later, dirt-smeared and jabbering about the fairy houses they had been building. Griffin gulped down a bottle of water during a break in his basketball game, while my husband made a slow-motion video of Jane and her princess pals pushing each other on the merry-go-round, dragging their fancy slippers through the dirt, hanging off the side and extending their arms into the air, their costumes sailing out around them.
I had forgotten the plastic forks. But a friend who lived nearby ran to her house to grab her own stash.
”A man over there wants to know if you have a permit for this,” another friend teased me as I was cutting the cake, the kids around me clamoring for a slice of the “Frozen” mountain. “Really?” I asked, panicked, before I realized she was joking.
Then, licking blue and pink frosting from my fingers, I watched Jane swing hand-over-hand through the monkey bars — a fresh accomplishment that had arrived just in time for her fifth birthday — a gift far superior to any I could have purchased at a store. As I stood holding my daughter’s Elsa braid and witnessing the determination in her gaze, I felt an intense flash of well-being. Later, I mounted the stairs with Jane struggling in my arms, screaming she wasn’t tired, as I peeled off her costume before tumbling her under the covers and into the land of deep slumber accessible only to children.
“I had one of those experiences today, seeing Jane and her friends run around in their princess outfits, where I realized how ephemeral all of this is,” Jeff told me that evening. I agreed and vowed, not for the first or last time, to try to catch up more of these tiny gifts that life delivers us within the day-to-day fray of raising children — the moments when everything suddenly clicks into place and feels precious and stately and rich.