As another birthday is here (and this one is certainly a milestone – how did 65 happen?), I find myself remembering birthdays from the past. The ones at college, celebrating with friends and pizza. The ones as a working person in New York City, marked by shared-March-birthday lunches with co-workers and evening cocktails with confidants. The one where B. and I reconnected long-distance after years of having not seen each other (he got so many points for remembering the date).
Today, though, a childhood birthday comes to mind. Like many of my birthday parties as a little girl, this one – for my fifth or sixth birthday, I don’t recall – took place in the finished basement of my childhood home. All the little kids from my kindergarten or first-grade class were invited. My mother, a hostess extraordinaire when it came to planning parties, and my dad, who just loved entertaining, often planned a themed birthday party for me. This one was no exception – this one was themed around Hawaii.
Visiting Hawaii back then was still uncommon; it was still seen as a paradise most grown-ups in my New York suburban neighborhood only daydreamed about. And my parents were two of them. So Hawaii it was.
They spent hours decorating the basement, turning it into a vision of the islands. My dad procured 1960s now-vintage, then-current airline posters promoting Hawaii as a vacation destination – big, bold, stylized graphics of surfers riding enormous waves, of volcanoes, of Waikiki Beach, of hula dancers, of beautiful, then-called stewardesses wearing smart, now-retro uniforms accessorized with leis. There were beach balls placed around the big room, some hula hoops, lots of balloons, and a Happy Birthday wall banner. My dad wore a Hawaiian shirt and had his always-present Brownie camera around his neck, ready to capture the big moments.
My mom went all out with food and table décor. There were plastic leis and party hats at each place setting and a tablecloth, plates, and cups all designed with images of hula dancers and palm trees. She baked a cake in the shape of a tropical flower (to this day, I still cannot figure out how she did it – I think it was a round cake surrounded by rows of cupcakes cut in half, the halves forming petals around the center) covered with sweet pink frosting and a hand-lettered Happy Birthday with my name in darker pink icing.
There were tiny, kid-sized ukuleles for the boys and tie-on grass skirts – made of bright green “grass” streamers – for the girls. (Remember, this was the early 1960s, when boys’ and girls’ toys often differed.)
And the food! “Pigs in blankets” (mini hot dogs in pastry dough) replaced the traditional luau roast pig, with ketchup subbing in for poi. There were pineapple chunks and mini marshmallows on tropical-colored plastic skewers; potato chips in Hawaiian print bowls; and soda in bottles festooned with tiny leis. There were goodie bags too, each holding a wealth of treasures – a postcard of Hawaii, shell necklaces for the girls, baseball cards for the boys (okay, the Hawaii theme fell apart there), a handful of wrapped candies, a small box of crayons. But that wasn’t all.
The pièce de résistance was a movie. After the requisite party games (“Pin the coconut on the palm tree!”) but before the requisite blowing-out-the-candles and unwrapping-the-presents ceremonies, there was a real movie on a real projector shown on a real stand-up screen. My dad, a film editor, had connections in the industry who lent him movies (on reels!) from time to time, usually films that were a couple of years old. And this time, the movie was – wait for it – Gidget Goes Hawaiian, a 1961 film about the beach-blanket-bingo adventures of teenage surfer girl Gidget, her main crush, Moondoggie, and all their friends on the beaches of Hawaii. The plot, such as it was, didn’t matter to a bunch of little kids – we all loved watching Gidget and company as they rode the waves and danced on the beach (the falling-in-love part was lost on us).
And me. I got to wear a crown on my head that said Birthday Girl. I got to open presents and be sung to and be served the first piece of cake (the one with my name on it).
On that one day, I was the girl whose daddy had brought home a movie (a movie! at home!) and whose mom had made the most beautiful cake in the world. I was the girl who hung out with Gidget (she was on the screen, sure, but still). I was the birthday princess.
©2023 Claudia Grossman
Such nice memories to hang on to, and such talented parents!!!!!!!!
Thank you so much, Ann!