Birthday parties were elaborate in the Peterson family. But we were not the only ones. It seemed to be a tradition in suburbia in the 1960’s. And it was a challenge to try to outdo ourselves year after year. I breathed a sigh of relief when the children became teenagers and a funny poem a la Ogden Nash could replace the exhausting ritual of organized games and hand-painted cupcakes. I wasn’t a fancy cook and never made an ice cream cake like my daughters, but I could decorate a regular cake to a fare-thee-well. “Nobody does it better,” was my mantra in those days. If someone liked lacrosse it was on the cake. Same with bicycle riding, violin playing, dancing, or swimming. The effort took hours and had to be hidden in a neighbor’s refrigerator until the appointed hour. The more convoluted the plans, the more the excitement mounted. Drama was the cornerstone of our family dynamic.

Nobody I knew ever went to a venue outside the home or hired a clown, a magician, or a brass band. We assigned various tasks to family members and prepared handmade invitations stating just what kind of party it was to be, when, and where. There were no computers, so we hand-carried or mailed these invitations, eagerly awaiting an RSVP by phone. Archaic, you say? Creative, I say. There was usually a theme, which depended on the time of year—summer, spring, autumn or winter. Sometimes the children arrived as bumblebees, fairy princesses, alligators, hound dogs, or scarecrows. Most costumes were cobbled together by hand. Mothers hovered over their offspring at elaborately decorated tables with handwritten place cards and fancy favors, and there was a modest prize for the winner of the most imaginative costume.

The most extravagant party I remember, however, was for Robert’s sixth birthday. I’m not sure it would occur in these sophisticated days. Few mothers, possibly for fear of embarrassing their child, would have put up a huge sign in the driveway stating ROBERTY BING BANG BOO’S CIRCUS.

The organizing committee for this extravaganza was legion. Half-a-dozen handpicked mothers were in charge of setting up the games. We had a large circular driveway on the hill behind our house, which lent itself to races on foot and on bicycle. There was a cakewalk set up near the main rear entrance, a ring-toss nearby, hopscotch, a jumping rope contest, horseshoe pitching, face painting, and the greatest of all, a balloon-bursting contest. That is, a balloon filled with water. A dozen laughing children stood at the ready, and Cary, the eldest at 13, sat in a chair inside a huge metal washbasin, with a large nail sticking out from her headband. You got three chances to hit the nail, pop the balloon, and drench Cary. It was hilarious! It takes a dedicated sister with legendary patience to put up with this…and laugh at the same time.

One of the last memorable outdoor parties at our beloved English Tudor was during Tom’s senior year in college. I combined an outdoor barbecue with birthday and graduation. It was a neighborhood spectacular and, yes, I had segued from circuses into doggerel of the highest caliber for the occasion.

Tom had played the piano as a child, and told me, later, that he regretted stopping, but would take it up at some future date. You know the scenario: ‘Oh, Mom, I wish you had made me continue the piano,’ not remembering how he’d struggled with old favorites like The Spinning Wheel, and begged to be allowed to quit.

It happened that I had a friend who was selling her old upright for $100. I grabbed this opportunity to give the largest and heaviest birthday gift yet bestowed on a member of the family. At the end of my traditional poem was a picture of a piano. I handed the paper to Tom. I have never seen such a multi-faceted expression on anyone’s face. Surprise, incredulity, disbelief, joy.

Haltingly, Tom said, “A piano? You’re giving me a piano?

“That’s right, Tom.”

“Holy shit, Mom. A PIANO!”

“Yes, Tom…but you have to move it!”


Birthday celebrations were not limited to the offspring, but I was always part of the planning. Most years I combined my own and my husband’s birthdays into a cooperative venture, known only to the children and me. Our birthdays were in June, one day apart, which made it easy and practical.

Some parties were a smash hit and others were a calamity. Probably the most memorable calamity took place in 1966. At this point we had been married sixteen years and you’d think Glen would be clued in to my propensity for engineering birthday surprises. Not so. In this area he was unconscious.

The kids had been helping me plan a special evening for just the two of us in New York City. Gil, a family friend, agreed to leave me a key to his Greenwich Village apartment with the owner of a liquor store down the street, and Cary babysat for the trip I made to the apartment the afternoon of the event, carrying Glen’s pillow and pajamas, champagne, crystal goblets, and a cake decorated for the occasion. Gil’s apartment was a bare bones fifth floor walkup with no air conditioning. There was a step up to the tiny loft bedroom and one small window at the foot of the bed that was locked because it overlooked a fire escape. But to me it was a most romantic getaway.

In late afternoon of his birthday I picked Glen up at his office in Jersey City and, as I drove through the Holland Tunnel, announced that we were going to the theater.

“Well, that’s certainly a surprise,” quipped my husband, acerbically, knowing that I had a full-blown addiction to the theater.

“Oh, but you’ll love this one!” I countered. “It’s a new play by Neil Simon…The Odd Couple with Walter Matthau and Art Carney, directed by that young guy, Mike Nichols.” He grunted.

“You remember our first Neil Simon play, don’t you? Barefoot in the Park,” with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. It was directed by the same guy.

The evening was a scorcher, but dinner was great, the theater was air-conditioned, and the play was a hit. Then came the scramble to retrieve the car, drive downtown, and find a parking space. After half-an-hour of searching, we found a spot five blocks from the apartment, which would give us until 8 AM the next morning.

“Where the hell are you taking me?” asked my somewhat disgruntled husband.

“Honey, it’s a surprise,” I chirped.

Triumphantly, I stopped in front of Gil’s building. ”Sweetie, this is the hideout Gil keeps talking about. He lent it to us for the night. Isn’t this great?

Five floors later we opened the door to his steaming apartment. Thank heaven the champagne was cold, but the cake had wilted, and my hair, which a neighbor had carefully teased into a beehive upsweep, was drooping. Glen made an effort to be gracious, and thanked me for all my planning, before turning to head into the loft. I had forgotten to tell him about the step and the low ceiling. The next thing I knew he was face down on the floor. Struggling to recover, he stood up abruptly, smacking his head on the ceiling. I was mortified.

“Jesus Christ, Meg, for thirty dollars we could have stayed in an air-conditioned hotel in Midtown and had free parking. And for God’s sake, get rid of that lacquered hairdo before you fall and break it.” I started to tear up.

Glen came out of the loft and pulled me to him. “Sorry, sorry. Don’t look so sad. But you have to admit it’s been an exhausting evening…Come on, honey, let’s go to bed…Oh, and don’t forget, we have to get up early to get the car. I hope you brought an alarm clock!”