I work as an event planner. My day job often requires I step outside myself to behave as though I’m someone with fastidious organizational skills and effervescent social acumen.
One of the primary reasons I’m not naturally suited to this work is that I don’t much like parties. As a partygoer, when I’ve arrive in a setting that is alien to me or am forced to speak to people I’ve never met before I only get over the feeling of discomfort by doing something I’m certain a lot of us do. I fake it.
As I age, the number of social occasions I’ve planned has magnified from hundreds into many thousands. I’ve learned to appreciate why celebration is such an indefatigable factor of the human condition. For many years I found only small, intrinsic ways personally to celebrate something important. I didn’t necessarily use celebration as the opportunity to throw down and do the electric slide, to pour champagne, or to cook a spectacular meal. Sometimes my gesture was just the perfectly chosen gift, given or received.
My elopement was a clandestine affair. My husband, a renowned introvert, even arranged for us to commingle our bachelor and bachelorette celebrations. Accompanied by our best man, my fiancé and I had martinis and a filet mignon at a famous steakhouse the night before marrying. After the ceremony at the city hall in New York the three of us went out for Irish coffees (I needed bolstering and my new husband was Irish). Then the happy couple had a meal at what used to be Windows on the World (it rained) and went to a Broadway show (Penn & Teller’s first).
When my daughter was born, my increased skill set as an event planner combined well with my desire to celebrate. My daughter, like me, is an only child. Unlike me, her parents were happily married during her childhood. I still remember vividly the aching loneliness of being the only child in the family. My mother was blessed with the amazing ability to build both my confidence and my individuality through her unflagging praise and obvious joy in my existence.
I wanted to do the same for my daughter. Unfortunately, my gifts are different from my mother’s. My mother was a gorgeous, perfectly coiffed, high-heel-wearing goddess. I have unruly independent curls, wear Aerosoles shoes or go barefoot whenever possible, and plan other people’s parties for a living.
A recent outing I had with friends well illustrates my gifts. I’d gotten it in my head to go on an expedition to Prospect Park for a free concert by the one and only Chaka Khan. I’d uncharacteristically waited until the last minute to plan. There was a lot going on in my life. Taking some time to hang with friends in what was likely to be an overwhelming experience wasn’t a priority. Think crowds, think outdoors, think bugs. Still, feeling the need to hang on to what may be an overrated idea that fun must be had at least some of the time, I managed to coerce three friends to join me at the concert.
Two of the friends I asked are also event-savvy. One is a hard-working chef who owns a catering company. The other was for many years an event planner for large corporate entities in large-scale retail environments. The former event planner, the chef and I all started unpacking our bags at the same time, each of us depositing our own personal bug spray, tissues and water on the blanket. We hadn’t brought much to the picnic, but somehow we’d brought enough. That’s what party planners do. Need a corkscrew, a safety pin, a flashlight? Just ask the ultimate scout – the person who plans parties for a living. Yes, those party planners are easily inspired creative thinkers.
I share this insight with the full awareness that this could also be considered a sickness. At least it felt that way when I began planning my daughter’s birthday parties. I never thought of myself as one of those diva, wannabe Auntie-Mame moms who has a pony at her kid’s fourth birthday celebration.
I waited until my kid was six to pull that stunt. I found a group called, I kid you not, The Federation of Black Cowboys to provide twelve little six-year-olds an opportunity to lasso and ride a horse on a city street in downtown Brooklyn before they gallivanted over to her favorite pizza shop across the street.
Thing is, that wasn’t my most outlandish scenario. My daughter’s birthdays have run the gamut from pool parties and shopping-mall scavenger hunts to karoake on a Broadway stage, rock climbing, and trapeze lessons. For her sweet sixteen I’ve been told by her and her friends that the party we threw in a small nightclub with me as DJ was the best of its type even though I nixed the dry ice and smoke at the last minute. It might have made it slippery, which is a liability when dancing, my party-planning spidey sense told me.
Perhaps the most questionable and outrageous birthday celebration was when my daughter was turning nine years old. I’d decided that it was time my kid understood she lived in one of the greatest cities in the world, so I created the Let’s Do New York adventure. The adventure started with an overnight stay in a hotel room with four of her besties. The hotel had a pool so they could swim. Then we’d make beaded necklaces, have room service, watch a movie, and go to sleep. In the morning it was off for a whirlwind tourism extravaganza, with a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, then lunch and shopping spree at the American Girl store and café. Culminating with a larger gathering and cake at Chuckie Cheese. Clearly I’m a madwoman.
Interestingly the whole plan almost got tossed. My daughter’s best friend’s mother died – tragically, unexpectedly — two days before the party. In horrible validation of the phrase that nothing’s promised, 35-year-old Jen collapsed in her home of a heart attack. Her only companions, her two children, eight and one. Everyone who knew Jen was utterly devastated, including me. I remember bumping into my neighbor Stan outside the day after in front of the house he owned and that Jen had lived in with her family. Stan and I held each other, sobbing unabashedly right there on the sidewalk.
Stan was a well-known and much-lauded figure on our block. As the head of our beautification team, it was his award-winning efforts that made our block one of the best-looking in the neighborhood. Perhaps it was his reputation that made me ask him for advice about the party. I thought that I probably should cancel it given everything that happened.
He surprised me by urging me not to. “Don’t cancel it. They’re kids. It’s important that they know life will go on and can still be fun.” Later. seeing how many times my daughter’s heartbroken friend smiled throughout our Let’s Do NY adventure settled it for me. I’ve never regretted my decision.
I remembered that conversation with Stan recently when he passed away and again when my daughter was making preparations for prom. Unsurprisingly, I never went to my high-school prom. Yet, for some reason, from the first I strongly encouraged my daughter to go even though she had broken up with her boyfriend only a few months before and like me isn’t much of a party animal. Dressing her up was fun, and Rent the Runway a godsend. However, the real motivating factor may have been that this would be a double milestone in her life, her turning eighteen and doing it without her dad, my husband, who passed away in January.
Late that night but still sooner than expected, my daughter came home from prom. I was in bed when she called to say she felt sick. She had the cab let her out a couple of blocks from our house and wanted me to meet her. It was cold, I was tired. I put a coat on over my jammies and left right away. This was something she used to ask her dad to do when he was alive: come meet her at the train station to walk her home. He was always up late and never minded.
I felt his presence as I walked, or lack of it. It was very dark out and I looked ahead and didn’t see her at first. Then there was this shimmery gold light and I knew it was her. She’d worn a shiny, slinky gold dress and she looked like a princess. An empress, really. Six hours after she left for prom she still looked stunning. Tired but stunning, not a hair out of place. Then it hit me, what her father would have said if he’d seen her.
He was a cartoonist whose contributions to his daughter’s birthday celebrations were drawing wonderful images of her aging on the invitations. He was also given to communicating in funny sound effects. For a moment I could hear him clearly in my head at the sight of his beautiful girl: “Woof.”
Those few seconds were like a dream, a cool dream that actually happened. And I will celebrate that memory of love for a long time to come.