I grew up in a home that honored many rituals, some admittedly more sacred than others. Monday night was Mah Jong for Mom and her girlfriends; Wednesday night was bridge for Dad and his friends. As a season ticket holder for UCLA basketball and football games, Dad attended every single home game for both teams with a religious fervor that our synagogue rabbi could only dream of inspiring in his congregants. Some years he even followed his beloved Bruins on the road for championship play-offs. Friday night dinners were special because it was Shabbat, so we ate in the dining room, not the kitchen. And if it was New Year’s Eve, it could only mean one thing: Mom’s annual surprise birthday party.
You may well wonder how a birthday party could be a surprise every year. It wasn’t. But that never stopped Dad from making elaborate plans beginning weeks in advance to help Mom ring in her New Year’s Eve birthday. I’d overhear Dad on the phone, inviting their friends to the same party he invited them to each and every year, while demanding their secrecy at the same time: “Don’t tell Libby about the party,” he’d admonish. “It’s a secret!” This secret was shouted, as Dad was severely hard of hearing and his default telephone manner was to roar out his information.
Dad loved all the little stealthy tasks involved in planning the party, especially ordering the cake. Like a secret agent, he’d deliver the cake to Mom’s best friend Eleanor, who would bring it to the party. “I’m going to pick up the cake!” Dad would shout as he left the house, naturally when Mom wasn’t around, though once, when my sister asked Mom where Dad had gone, she answered, “He’s probably somewhere planning my surprise party.”
Deep down, Dad must have realized that Mom knew full well that the “quiet dinner” that one of their friends – put up to the task by Dad—invited them to on December 31 was just a ruse for the party, as friends popped out from behind doors and couches, shouting “Surprise!” My mother was very beloved by their circle of friends, with her warmth, grace, intelligence, tact, and yes, patience with my Dad. So I’ve no doubt that this devoted group never got tired of reprising this show every year for decades, as if for the first time. Dad’s inventory of party ideas may have been limited, but his devotion to Mom knew no bounds. She was the love of his life from the time he met her when she was sixteen. Planning her “surprise” party every year was something he did with a full heart and tireless enthusiasm. When the lights dimmed and Eleanor carried out the cake while everyone sang “Happy Birthday,” Dad gazed at Mom with love, wanting more than anything to thrill his sweetheart. Mom’s high school drama background came in handy as she reprised her annual performance as the wife who is both astonished and dazzled at her good fortune at having a husband so thoughtful, and friends so dear.
The guest list for Mom’s birthday party never varied. My parents grew up in an era where people didn’t move around very often, or very far. And just like most people in my parents’ generation who got married stayed married, the friends they made back in high school, summer camp and college were their friends for life. When they all grew up and married, the new spouses took their natural places in the circle of friendship. I never heard my parents complain about any of the friends they inherited through marriage, either. And I doubt the women’s magazines at the time had many articles titled, “I Can’t Stand My Husband’s Best Friend!” We talk a good game about “tolerance” now, but I think that as relationships go, theirs was a time when people were more accepting of other people’s idiosyncracies.
Now I look at the longevity of my parents’ friendships as something remarkable, a treasure more rare today. Friends with whom I felt an intimate kinship in high school and college, and with whom I assumed I’d share lifelong friendships, eventually moved on, geographically or emotionally. I’ve often wondered if they missed me as I have missed them.
After Dad passed away there were no more surprise birthday parties for Mom, but her loyal and loving friends made sure she would never pass her New Year’s Eve birthday alone. Mom not only had loving friends with her till the end of her life, she also had the treasured memories of all those New Year’s Eve birthday parties spanning decades, planned by a husband who couldn’t wait to “surprise” her all over again.