Since moving to Kenya in mid-November, I’ve been to more than my share of birthday parties for little ones, averaging about one per month. Each and every one has been an absolute carnival of candy, every parent’s worst nightmare as his or her child inhales with abandon what we refer to as kiddie crack cocaine. Tables bedecked with bowls of jewel-like candies (jelly beans, lollipops, etc.); cakes decorated with marshmallow animals and M&Ms; soft, lemony sugar cookies; and far too much chocolate (not that parents don’t regress at times and dive in too).
Ella’s third birthday party last Friday did not serve up this candy-store mania, but it did offer many of the traditional winning elements. Mothers clustered around the soft drink table, drinking tea and, in some cases, a much-welcomed glass of white wine. The occasional father or two supervised the Bouncy Castle and the equally bouncy trampoline. Streamers wove a web of color, laced through window guards, around columns, along the roof. Kids ran wild, screaming and laughing and knocking over clowns who were trying to catch them and smell their “smelly” feet. The face painter masked them with lions and tigers and bears, kitty cats and Spidermen. More tea, please. Make that a sauvignon blanc. Or, actually, make that a balloon. (There’s a restaurant nearby called Osteria where they serve wine in a regular glass, or in what’s called a Balloon, nearly half a bottle per serving.)
I only spotted midget-sized morsels of Snickers and Mars bars in the party giveaway bags. Instead, the table was laden with juice boxes, baby hotdogs, popcorn, artichoke dip and meatballs. And the cake was beyond belief, a Barbie doll head and torso decorated with pink and white icing in the shape of a ballgown. A hit, it tasted the way every birthday cake should -- cottony with frosting that reminded me of the filling inside Twinkies. One little girl told Mommy, “I want that cake for my wedding.”
The highlight of this party was Sugarboy, a lovely chestnut with a white blaze down to his nose, who’d been brought over by owner Annabella to entertain the kids. Gorgeous, elderly (23 years) and calm as a pond, he offered our kids rides around Charlie’s garden, a stunning acre of bougainvillea, yellow fever trees, cactus, passion lilies and sprawling lawn. The young ones were smitten with Sugarboy, sitting astride him as if he was their very own steed ferrying them off to galloping new adventures.
[The hostess and her daughter confessed to another neighbor that they were supposed to have Popeye for the ride-alongs, but he’d scratched his eye and wasn’t in a party mood. “Oh, no,” said our friend, paling and blushing all at once. (She is one of the most even-keeled, genteel persons I have ever met.) “No, no, not Popeye. NEVER Popeye.” “But he’s such a lovely pony!” respond the hostesses. “Oh no, he’s NOT. Popeye is a bad, bad boy. You’d have Popeye off a lead here and he’d wreak absolute havoc, charging the clowns, shying at the streamers, banging into parents, knocking over children. And he LOVES cake!” Ah, Sugarboy is all sugar; Popeye is a bad pickle on a good day.
Suddenly, not unusual for this time of year, the rain belts down in its invariable sheet, sending us scattering with lounge pillows under the terrace roof. It dampens all the decorations and makes a soup of the back garden. Still, the tiny partygoers slosh and scamper, making the most of a giant-sized rubber slide and harassing the clowns. (I hate clowns.)
While weathering the weather inside and talking with my wonderful Danish friend Annabella, Gladys rushes in. My son’s priceless nanny whispers, “Come see Tiger.” I spring outside. Surmo, with only three teeth spaced evenly along his top gums, is leading my toddler and Sugarboy around the lower garden. Tiger is mounted on the horse’s back as if he belongs there.
I have seen my son do many a splendid and fearless a thing in the nearly two years he’s been with me. Catapulting himself over the arms of armchairs; climbing onto tables and jumping into the pillowed unknown; settling himself, by himself, into the raggedy-muffin hammock for a swing-swing in our backyard; throwing himself with utter abandon into my arms as if I shall always, always catch him mid-flight. But never have I been so startled and pleased as I was watching him on Sugarboy.
My heart melts like fudge on a hot plate. Something hot and sweet spills through me. Tiger sits there, sloping into the motion of the horse beneath him, gripping the pommel lightly and waving to me. “Look, Mama, I riding!” he shouts. He pats Sugarboy’s neck and gamely insists on yet another turn around Charlie’s garden.
Pride, it dawns on me, thick and potent. I feel so proud of my son with his painted-on tiger face, part of the party ritual, his nose a button of white with black whiskers, stripes running down his orange-ish cheeks, his brows blackened and haplessly sinister. And the pride he holds in himself surges like something umbilical between the two of us. And I see him as he truly is in the world -- and in the embrace of my life thus far.
A pride of Tigers.