Last spring, I wrote an article about having a summer birthday party for my daughter Zoe with several members of her preschool class. I called it the Seasonal Birthday Party, or SBP. The idea of the Seasonal Birthday Party is to streamline the celebratory process. Parents of pre-schoolers in particular are inundated with invitations to parties for their children’s friends, because the nice thing to do at a young age is to include everyone. But why attend similar parties for 3 and 4 year olds every weekend, when parents could just plan one each season for all the kids in the class and be done with it? This had been the crux of my argument.
Further, I had asked deep, probing questions like, do children really require so much personalized attention on their actual birthday? And how many gifts does one child really need?
According to my now four-year-old daughter Zoe, the answers to those questions are “yes” and “a whole lot.”
Oh, she had been pretty happy with the SBP at first. She had danced with the kids in her class and had enjoyed her ice cream sundae. But why were there so few presents for her, she wondered aloud in the car the way home, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of the meager pile of gift wrapped boxes in the back row. “Because only the host children exchanged gifts,” I tried to explain.
“But all my friends were there!” She rationalized.
“Yes, but they came to celebrate with you, not to get you stuff you don’t need.”
She pondered this for a while, looking out the window at the passing cars on the road. “I don’t get it.” She concluded.
I sighed. “On your actual birthday next month we are taking you to the American Girl store. You will get lots of presents then.”
“Oh! Then that’s okay.”
So there you have it. The cat is out of the bag. I caved.
It had not been my intention to undermine the SBP. It’s just that the American Girl party had been planned by my mother since Zoe was about 6 seconds old. (My mom, who helped to deliver Zoe, cut the umbilical cord. Then, holding the clamps high, she had announced, “On this day, four years hence, my granddaughter Zoe Rebecca Gerstenblatt shall have an American Girl celebration!” Or something like that. I was on drugs at the time and can’t remember it verbatim, but you get the gist. A trumpet may have blared.) This event was meant to be, with or without a class celebration.
So, on July 14th on this year, while France was celebrating their independence by eating croissants and watching fireworks light up the sky over the Seine, Zoe and I headed into Manhattan for her birthday lunch at the American Girl Café.
Correction: lunch with Nana, GG, Auntie Sheri, Rosie, JaJa, and my friend Dana and her daughter at the American Girl Café.
When this group had convened in the entrance of the store, my mom gave everyone play-by-play instructions. “Right now, we are here, in the lobby on 5th Avenue. Next, we will head straight to the third floor to shop. If anyone has to use the facilities, stop on 2 and we’ll re-group later. We start lining up for lunch at 1:45.” This was her Superbowl. She chugged some Gatorade, threw a whistle around her neck, and clicked the heels of her Chanel flats three times. Game On.
In addition to those participants mentioned above, both my dad and my step-dad came by the store from their respective New York City offices to say hello to us all and to wish Zoe a happy birthday. Then my dad stayed for a bit to shop with us ladies.
“Jeez, Jules, this place is nuts.” My dad declared, shaking his head at all the moms holding girls holding girl dolls.
“I want that one!” Zoe whined.
“Which one, pussycat?” My mom asked, bending over to look at the case with Zoe. She pointed. “That one?”
“No, THAT one!!!!” Zoe wailed, pointing at the exact same doll.
This was going to be fun.
“What can GG get you, Zoe? Come with GG and let’s look over here.”
“I had this idea 65 years ago,” Great-grandma Rosie said with awe. “I raised three daughters that liked to dress up just like their dolls. I could’ve made a fortune!” She mused. “Stupid.”
“Here, Rosie, look at the Rebecca Rubin doll. She’s Jewish! She’s from the Lower East Side, just like you!” I enthused.
“Really? My word. This I’ve got to see.”
“Jules,” my dad said with finality minutes later. “This is nuts.”
“I believe you’ve already said that, dad.”
“And your daughter, she isn’t being very cooperative or grateful.”
“Yeah. Maybe we should leave her here.” I tried for a smile.
“Can I get Zoe’s doll these shoes?” My sister-in-law Sheri asked. “They are so cute. I wish they came in my size.”
“Look: a hair salon for dolls!” My aunt, JaJa, exclaimed. “And, oooh…puppies!”
“Jules, I think I have to write to that newspaper of yours.” My dad was back from his wanderings. He held up his left hand, revealing pink pajamas in Zoe’s size, and his right, holding matching doll-sized ones.
“Because I’m On The Verge!” he laughed.
Twenty exhausting minutes later, we were the proud parents of Julie, the 1974 American Girl. Julie had secured a groovy canopy bed to sleep in, a new bathing suit, several outfits, two dogs, a change of shoes, two pairs of pajamas, and a lot of grown-ups around her in need of a stiff drink.
We headed to the café for Bellinis and sticky buns.
That night, Zoe and I settled in to her bed to read all about Julie.
“She’s Julie like you, Mommy!” Zoe said, now exhausted and back to being her sugary sweet self. “She has long blonde hair like you, too.”
“Yes, you’re right, puppy.” I agreed. “This doll is supposed to be like me.” From the 70’s, with bell-bottoms and a small braid in the front of her hair. I opened the story.
“For Julie Albright, life after her parents’ divorce held as many ups and downs as the hilly streets of her San Francisco neighborhood.” I stopped. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I called out.
“What?” Zoe asked, clearly concerned.
“Nothing, pup. This is just…familiar. That’s all.”
I kept going. There were more similarities. A best friend named Ivy Ling who loved gymnastics. (I loved gymnastics. I also loved my friend Pat Li.)
“I’m tired,” Zoe yawned.
I finished reading. “Most of all, Julie missed having her whole family together.” I tucked Zoe and Julie into their beds and thought back on the day.
I pictured my 97-year-old grandmother talking animatedly with my best friend from 7th grade. I thought about my mother-in-law, newly diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, who took the train in from Rhode Island with my sister-in-law for the day just to be a part of the experience. My aunt JaJa, who made me feel so special as a child that I couldn’t end a visit with her without crying hysterically. My mom, who had been looking forward to this day for so long. And crazy little Zoe, the center of it all, hugging her new Julie doll and having no concept of what this day really meant to me. To all of us.
It’s good to be an American Girl.