I am 2. My parents have just split up, and, rather than endure each other’s presence every March, they’ve agreed to trade off hosting my birthday each year. Naturally, this breeds some level of competition, and I reap the benefits as the years pass. Mom throws a pool party; Dad organizes a Hawaiian luau. Mom takes my friends and me to a jewelry studio to craft our own accessories; Dad lets us turn his living room into a day spa.
I am 8. Both parents have remarried. My stepmom crafts themed cakes from scratch in painstaking detail to rival any bakery, while Mom, ever vigilant, commissions a confection—a stunning, frosted re-creation of my American Girl doll, Samantha, made of carrot cake. It is the talk of second grade.
Mom becomes renowned for her next-level party favors, even going so far as to pull all-nighters hand-painting names like “Amanda” and “Brittany” on little boxes and setting them out to dry on the counter. “Do not, under any circumstances, touch these,” she instructs me. I am still awake, of course, buzzing with anticipation, and just looking at them is enough of a thrill, anyway. Still, nothing compares to the excitement of feverishly annotating the pages of a fresh Oriental Trading Company catalogue, with its bulk-order plastic coconuts and mini slinkies.
Halloween, too, brings sheer magic. The neighborhood trick-or-treating pregame happens every year at Megan’s house, where the latex smell of cheap face paint permeates the air as someone’s mom—usually mine—offers costume-makeup touch-ups. One year Dad hosts a blowout in the “barn” above his old garage, which is transformed by hay bales and tufts of fake cobwebs. A dozen little mermaids and equestrians and princesses cautiously reach into containers of eyeballs (peeled grapes) and intestines (cold spaghetti), squealing.
I am 13. The parents are now relegated to lesser roles, like flipping pancakes the morning after a slumber party full of middle-schoolers who have stayed up all night choreographing dance routines to Britney Spears. We rehearse tirelessly, sweating through Powerpuff Girls pajamas, making someone’s little brother film the finished product on the camcorder he got for Christmas.
As we get older, we still don’t sleep, preferring to spend the wee hours recreating episodes of America’s Next Top Model or, convinced a serial killer is tapping at the basement windows, plotting our 4 a.m. escape route. Soon, boys start showing up again—we’d lost them after the co-ed kindergarten pizza parties. Once repulsed, we’re now intrigued.
I am 15. It is sophomore year. At yet another birthday sleepover, we streak through the cornfield across the street from someone’s house. Junior year, we drink in that cornfield, warm beer purloined from someone’s dad’s garage stash. College brings ragers—the golden era of the house party. Cheap, nauseating vodka in plastic bottles. A newfound obsession with hookah. Making out with someone’s brother’s roommate in a bathroom. The scar on my knee from clambering over a brick wall one night when the cops show up and start asking for IDs. Playing King’s Cup around a hand-me-down coffee table, blowing smoke rings of cotton candy shisha in a room wallpapered with flattened beer containers.
After graduation, the liquor gets better; the parties, smaller. The hookah is abandoned, and mid-shelf Sauv Blanc replaces Green Apple Smirnoff. Birthdays, meanwhile, are celebrated at restaurants, if at all. The old crew starts to disperse around the country, making it harder, and more expensive, to gather. When we do, we make it count. There are baby showers, engagement parties, and bachelorette weekends. Gift registries and save-the-dates and Paperless Posts.
Somehow, I am 27. It is this very summer, 2019. I’m at my parents’ lake house on a beautiful evening. The party is my stepdad, mom, two friends from high school, my 91-year-old great aunt, and me. We are sitting by the water, eating strawberry shortcake and watching the sunset. The get-together is as enjoyable as the formal, catered, sit-down affair I attended a week before to celebrate a friend’s nuptials. You can conjure that contentment with 75 people and an open bar, or with a bottle of Chardonnay and someone’s Bluetooth speaker, all the same.
I’ve come a long way from that night 20 years ago, when I stayed up watching craft paint dry in the kitchen, but it still feels just as good to be surrounded by people you love, whether over an American Girl cake or a four-course meal or a backyard barbecue. Celebrating is in our DNA; gathering is part of human nature. The parties we throw become snapshots we carry with us forever, monuments to moments big and small. Maybe there’s a graduation or a wedding or a baby. Maybe it’s just Saturday, and the sun is shining.