By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Mark Hunter|
As my 50th birthday loomed, a friend in New York gave me this advice: “You’d better do something to celebrate it, or you’ll end up always remembering that you turned 50 without doing anything special.” This, she went on to say, had happened to her. “My husband picked up theater tickets at the last minute and invited some friends we didn’t know very well to join us. Neither the play nor the meal was very good, and the other couple seemed baffled and a little embarrassed to be spending such a significant birthday with me. And that’s what I remember whenever 50th birthdays come up.”
I was loath to create my own such dreary memory.
But I was even more afraid of a surprise party.
I had seen several friends surprised by big parties, where they were forced on a moment’s notice to greet all manner of ghosts from their pasts and skeletons from their closets that well-meaning party planners had located and imported from all corners of the globe. The thought of a surprise party plus the shock and horror of seeing such ghosts and skeletons was really too great a risk to bear. I decided to throw myself a birthday party.
At the time, my enormous back yard was ankle deep in eucalyptus leaves and cluttered up with odd piles of broken concrete, rotting wood piles and rolls of old rusting fencing left over from when I bought the place. I’d have to clean it up. If the party proved a bust, I reasoned, at least I’d have a clean yard.
My birthday is in mid-August, so the temperatures dictated that an outdoor party would have to be at night.
For invitations I combed picture books for a suitable image. In a book on alchemy I found a drawing of a queen holding a small, fire-breathing dragon that bore a remarkable resemblance to my terrier. I photocopied the image, re-drew the queen’s visage with my glasses and wispy hair and slapped the picture on the front of the invitation. Inside I wrote, “Michelle Huneven invites you to a Night Party to celebrate her 50th birthday, 8 p.m.,” etc. On the opposite side of the page went, “Dinner will be served / Children and dogs welcome.” I hand-colored around 65 invitations with markers and sent them to everyone I liked. Eighty-plus adults said they’d come, plus nine children and two dogs.
I decided to not even think about cooking for this mob. I asked a friend to cater. She’d bring Cuban-style roast pork legs and a big vat of mixed shellfish ceviche. I would make a green salad, and grill vegetables and some chicken for the non-pork eaters. Rather than birthday cake, there would be strawberry shortcake.
My sister, who lives in Washington, D.C., came out five days ahead of time to help. Men were hired to clean out the yard.
I went to IKEA with no set ideas and came home with two tall torchères that took 150-watt bulbs ($7.99 each), 100 tea lights and almost as many clear glass candle holders. I bought 108 stackable juice glasses at $4 a dozen — party wine glasses for the rest of my life. I bought half a dozen big cushions, $5.99 each. At the checkout line were these outdoor steel torch holders, reduced many dollars to a mere 99 cents each — the hitch was, no corresponding torches. I bought about a dozen holders. On the way home, I stopped at a hardware store for torches — which they didn’t have, but they did have replacement wicks.
Once home, I made my own torches. In the garage I found a dozen quart jars and lids. I punched holes in the lids, inserted thick wicks, filled the lamps with oil and lit them. The torches’ eerie resemblance to Molotov cocktails was, in broad daylight, more than disturbing, but after a few warning “poufs!” they did not explode. I fell in love with those torches. They had big smoky flames and a splendid homemade savagery.
Then I spent an hour or so making covers for the pillows out of leftover linen and some Indian paisley fabric.
I went outside and surveyed the yard.
Right at the back French doors is a large courtyard — that’s where I’d serve the food, close by the kitchen. Go up three broad steps above the courtyard and you’re on an old cracked and wavy basketball court. That’s where people would mostly congregate. To the east of the basketball court, about 30 feet, is an old cement pad for a garage. The bar would go there, so that people would have to walk through the party to get to their drinks and, en route, mingle and talk to people they didn’t know.
To the west of the basketball court is a nice flat place. I pitched a tent there for the kids and whoever else might like it. Kids love a tent.
I had maybe four outdoor chairs and one outdoor coffee table, total. The word went out to friends and neighbors for furniture and rugs and more cushions.