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Posts Tagged ‘birthday’

I’m going to talk about friendship, loss, and candy. It’s a tall and improbable order and it’s also late at night, but I’m going to try anyway. Let me know how I did.

Once upon a time there were two families whose houses were just a few yards away. The kids were pretty close. Holiday parties, birthday parties, in and out of each other’s houses, falling out of each other’s trees, playing Atari and street games until dark, waiting for the school bus.

The two boys in the two families were especially tight. When the green-haired clown at one kid’s birthday party would call him up to the stage, the other would go up in his place. Not just once, either. No one ever really figured out why, but it was pretty funny.

One time, while talking on the phone, one of the little guys was eating jelly beans and wanted to share with the other, so he put a jelly bean on the receiver. It didn’t work and he was bummed. They were pretty young.

And remember when we all had land lines, and when you called someone, there was a split second before the phone rang? Once one of the boys picked up the phone and dialed the other…who was right there on the other end in that split second, ready to call as well.

The little girls in the one family delivered, then got older and made and delivered, holiday bread to the other family. This has persisted, without fail, since the late 1960s.

Everyone grew up, as these things go. The boy in the one family married, moved across the state, and became a dad to three daughters. One of the girls in one of the families became a kitchen fiend, the kind who makes Grandma-style treats and talks about it a lot. Once she made Martha Stewart’s recipe for marshmallows, which makes eleventy-hundred of them, and gave the boy some for his three daughters.

Suddenly the boy with the three daughters fell sick and didn’t recover. I know it looks like I just dropped that into the story out of the clear blue sky, but that’s actually how it happened. Everyone was blindsided. The families, both of them, kind of went numb, as these things go, too. At the wake the kitcheny girl spent a good amount of time wiping her eyes and hugging his dad and his sister. And she met his three daughters, now teenagers, for the first time.

In the hallway of the funeral home were cards on which visitors were asked to write a favorite memory of the boy. The kitcheny girl remembered, in writing, the time she asked him if his daughters might like some homemade marshmallows. How could she forget? His reply was, ‘…Is this a trick question?!’

His sister said goodbye with a last hug and said, “Allie, Vicki, and Stephie remembered you. They said, ‘It’s the Marshmallow Girl!'”

Life’s story, right? We’re lucky if it starts sweet and ends sweet.

RIP Johnny.

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From the days when birthday cards could be seasonal too. This is dated 1979.

I’ve worked lots of birthday parties for kids over the years—magician/illusion parties and face painting parties at different venues, cooking, crafts, and creative games parties at the JCC and parks system. They’re usually on a Saturday or Sunday, and parents of the miniature guests stay the entire time.

It’s a lot different from when I was little, when kids’ birthday parties were held at home for a couple of hours after school. In my case, my mom hired our favorite babysitter to help out with the games, and my aunts would walk over to help out. Moms dropped their kids off, and my friends wore dresses, stockings, and Mary Janes (we called them ‘party shoes’). We played games, then we opened presents, then we ate. Food was minimal; usually just cake, at the end, because we were only an hour or so outside of dinnertime. Done and over.

I can see the appeal of having birthday parties out of the house. First you have to clean the house, then you have the party, then you have to clean again; and that’s right after you organized games and cake and crowd control from 3:30-5. And more moms today work, and couldn’t do a weekday party even if they wanted to.

But I liked our way. Here’s why: If all of the kids today are having their parties at Gymboree, you’re signing up for a colored-blocked version of the movie Groundhog Day: the same party over and over and bloody over. There were no cookie-cutter parties back then, because the parents (usually the mom) took full reign on who and what to have at her house.

Years later my friends remembered the birthday parties I’d had when we were little, and I would bet hard cash that even today they’d remember. I was kind of famous for having the same game at all of my birthday parties. We lapped it up.

An October birthday is a pumpkin-theme requisite, and my mom either heard of or came up with the idea* for a pumpkin hunt, right in the house.**

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Even earlier–probably around 1977.

-First you buy as many sugar pumpkins as there will be guests at the party. Buy ones with stems attached. Place them in different locations throughout the house—up steps, down steps, into other rooms, around corners.

-Next, cut butcher’s twine in really long pieces—one for each pumpkin.

-Tie the end of one string to each pumpkin. Then walk each string to the middle of the living room rug.

-When you’re done, you’ll have a lot of string ends grouped onto the rug. Have each party-goer pick up one end of each string, and at the count of three have them follow it until she finds her pumpkin. There will be much bumping and limbo-style dodging and swerving and laughing.

-With a permanent marker, write the name of each guest on the underside of her pumpkin, and place them on the floor by the door. These are the party favors.***

One of my favorite specialty stores used to make the awesomest design for Halloween sheet cakes, and that was what I had for a birthday cake. It was the five little pumpkins sitting on a gate (like the Halloween poem we learned in nursery school****), in orange, green, and brown butter cream, all on a vanilla butter cream background. They still make their cakes and fillings and frostings from scratch, but regrettably, they don’t make that design anymore. One of these days I will recreate it myself.

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*And she reads this blog and has a memory like a steel trap, so she’ll let me know.

**You could do this outside, too, if you had a lot of yard and a sunny forecast.

***Or, if the kids are old enough and you have Xena-like powers of ambition, spread newspapers on the dining room table or outdoor picnic table, hand out smocks, and let the kids carve.

***I looked for a youtube video, but they’re all saying it wrong. This is the early 70s, Central NJ way.

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate.

The first one said, ‘Oh my, it’s getting late!

The second one said, ‘There are witches in the air.’

The third one said, ‘I don’t care.’

The fourth one said, ‘Let’s run and run and run.’

And the fifth one said, ‘It’s Halloween fun!’

WHOOO went the wind and OUT went the light

And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.

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Last week I stopped into my favorite little grocery store and put my soon-to-be purchases on the conveyor belt.

‘Milk and cookies,’ grinned the cashier, young enough that he probably has them at snack time every day.

‘It’s been a long day. I’m an emotional eater,’ I replied.

He looked down and saw that I had opted for the package of three chocolate chip cookies instead of the single, then looked over at the two cartons of milk, then glanced up at me questioningly.

‘And I’m an over-achiever.’

I know and you know there are definitely less fattening* ways to assuage a bad day than to snack it away. But unless you have bad days every day or even every Thursday, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable way to feel a little better if it works for you. And it does for me.

Some good friends and I were talking about this notion the other night. They had just endured a grueling, heartbreaking couple of hours caring for a neighbor who has a debilitating illness, and our plans to go out for a pre-birthday** pizza dinner that same night were especially welcome. Our night out allowed them the opportunity to 1) celebrate my birthday with me 2) eat, because they usually eat dinner far earlier and were ravenous 3) blow the grime off the whole sad experience by going to a new place and trying some really wonderful housemade pizza***. We ate, and drank, and brooded a little, and laughed a lot. And while it wasn’t a silver bullet that fixed everything, it relaxed them.

I believe each of us needs to have a working plan, a list of proven ways, to reboot for when horror strikes. Because it’s going to. As long as the ways you reboot don’t hurt anybody, do them.**** Yours might be buying a new pair of chandelier earrings, dunking your feet in the pond at the end of your street, or a long car drive to nowhere in particular. Me, I reset by watching British movies of any stripe, texting my best friends and asking them to send me off-color jokes, and eating dark chocolate. Sometimes I go the whole hog and get the chocolate surrounded by a cookie. Then I pour a cold one.

This is peace to me—a very simple, inexpensive way to smooth the uncomfortable wrinkles that get jammed into my day from time to time.

For more years than I care to count I white-knuckled my way through my life, trying to work through stuff that was going wrong at the moment while also—I’m now bewildered by this—trying to prevent bad stuff that MIGHT come down the pike. Here’s what I learned: It’s not worth it. You could have spreadsheets dedicated to protecting yourself, each member of the household, your belongings, your favorite pop star and the place where she gets her highlights done…but stuff is going to go wrong anyway.

Having a coping plan that works for you is what matters. Recovery is what matters. This kind of preparation is okay—not just okay, but vital. It liberates you beyond belief so you can just live your life, and live it big.

Scribble down some ideas for yourself right now and stick it in your wallet. I humbly suggest you start with this post’s namesake. They won’t fail you.

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*The milk was *1%*! Cut me that much slack.

** It was 10/18. Presents and special treatment are still being entertained.

***Porta, Asbury Park, the baddest new pizza place at the Jersey Shore.

****And don’t you feel guilty for a millisecond, or you’ll have me to answer to.

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Finley imagining the possibilities.

I know, the most famous great equalizers are death and taxes, but let’s not be gruesome. It’s still summer, after all. No, I’m talking ice cream.

Ice cream may be the one thing everyone can agree on. Amazing, really, how all demographics love it—babies, old-timers, thirty-somethings. Even those with strict dietary restrictions still eat it, whether they really ought to or not. One 4th of July I witnessed a group of heart transplant patients downing bowls of the highest-fat, homemade stuff, their mates watching, lips pursed, tut-tutting at them. But the spouses didn’t stop them. Maybe it was because they understood that, like it or not, ice cream is something everyone actually needs once in a while. Let’s face it—no eats ice cream because they’re hungry.

So why do we eat it? Why do we crave it, body and soul? I think a combination of factors are in play: it’s cooling (lovely in the summertime); it’s sweet (a rare find in nature); it’s full of fat (again, rare in nature) which makes it feel luxurious and indulgent (and who doesn’t like to feel special?).

Also—and maybe most importantly—since we’ve all eaten it for as long as we can remember, it evokes childhood memories. And they’re usually happy ones. My own include trips to Carvel with my family after dinner most summer nights. To this day, I think of ice cream as a nighttime thing.*

When I was a kid, I went through ice-cream phases in which I got the same thing every time for weeks on end. First it was brown bonnet cones, soft vanilla ice cream quickly enshrouded in chocolate goo, which solidified to a candy shell on contact. Then it was soft vanilla in a cup topped with Bing cherries. During my overweight/painfully self-conscious teen years, it was Carvel’s Thinny-Thin. As unsatisfying as it sounds, but better than nothing. At the Beach Plum, where they made their ice cream on site, I got Straw Cheese (strawberry cheesecake) or blueberry, which had fresh blueberries mixed with vanilla ice cream. Incredible.

Last week my friend Lauren and the cuties above and below joined me for ice cream at Days in Ocean Grove. For years now this has been my favorite place to get ice cream, for the yummy stuff itself and for the entire experience.

Shane and Finley, with post-ice cream happy faces and sticky hands.

Days is also the town favorite, especially after evening shows at the Great Auditorium just across the lawn. The ice cream is high in fat, which you know as well as I do translates to big flavor and wonderful mouth feel. The patrons know it too, as evidenced by the long line of people you see below waiting to get in.**

The atmosphere at Days is calming, nostalgic and cozy, much like the whole town, which feels as though Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the original planning board. Days was established in the late 1800s. It features bentwood chairs and gleaming dark wood tables. The seating area is outdoors, roofed in most areas, and its tall windows are always open to allow the ocean breezes as well as the ice cream to cool you. A antique fountain bubbles in the middle, among the plants. Forgoing harsh neon lights and signs, to this day, Days is happily, entirely illuminated by light bulbs. At night it glows like a giant birthday cake and smells as sweet.

Once the sun goes down, locals and vacationers begin to amble over to stand in line—sun soaked, clad in loose faded t shirts, bikini tops, flip flops, hair freshly rinsed of salt water and slicked down, laughing, and very, very relaxed. Neighbors share adventures of the day with neighbors; newcomers chat with returning patrons about whose kids are starting kindergarten and about the virtues of Coppertone Babies lotion.

Parents of the tiniest children hold them up to the glass counter to see the choices. Teenagers love chocolate chip mint cones and sundaes with piles of whipped cream. Older folks get dishes of their favorites from childhood. The proprietor tells me that on nights of the immensely popular Doo-Wop shows, whose audiences are Baby Boomers, he always puts out classics like rum raisin and pistachio and butter pecan.

If all of this sounds like a page out of 1926, or out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, it’s not. We’re all lucky that it’s not. And even better: we know we’re lucky.

A vintage sign and scoop.

I shot the below scene last Saturday night at around 10:30. Click on it to enlarge and see how many ages are represented.

There’s something comforting about eating a timeless treat at a venue that’s older than all of us.

For the past few years I’ve been partial to ice cream with a lot of stuff in it. Texture, lumps and bumps. My current favorite, two years running, is the below—peanut butter moose tracks. Peanut butter ice cream with peanut butter ripples and chunks woven throughout, and studded here and there tiny peanut butter cups. In other words, my pipe dream.

A new contender, chocolate midnight cookie, is vying for its place, though. No matter. Choosing a favorite ice cream is one of the happier dilemmas in life, I’d say.

*Which is not to say that if someone offered it to me during the day that I’d fight them off with a stick.

**The line you see in the photo was only half of it, by the way. If you go, go on the early side.

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