'Shalom, this is Yael, Liyah's mother." Standing stupefied, cradling our low-tech wall phone under the crook of my neck while trying to grab one or another of the two-year-old twins as they were on their way to causing havoc in the other room, my mind was racing: Who is Liyah? And how am I supposed to know her?
"Liyah's having a birthday party on Shabbat and would like to invite Ya'ir. She was very impressed with him last Friday and his knowledge of Bible stories."
I mumbled something about that being his father's doing while still trying to place her. Wait a minute, maybe she's from the Chabad preschool, which shares the sandlot with Ya'ir's secular one. He seems to know everyone there, always giving them hugs...
Liyah's mother continues, rattling off the pertinent information and I scribble obligingly. She ends the conversation by saying, "Liyah is only inviting five children from the preschool and Ya'ir is the only boy. She's really taken with him."
I have no idea who this girl is. And now I've been sentenced to spending Shabbat morning with a bunch of preschoolers - and apparently my son's future in-laws.
Worse yet, what does one buy for a mystery four-year-old girl?
I couldn't ask Ya'ir about the girl just yet because visiting our apartment at the time was another child from his preschool (with his mother and younger brother), who apparently was not among the invitees, poor sod.
BEFORE WE MARRIED, my husband made it very clear he would never ever take any future offspring to play dates or birthday parties. I think it may even be written in our ketuba.
Indeed, though Ya'ir is nearly four, it was only late last school year that I enabled him to begin his social life. Not wanting to afflict my first born with my personal social retardation, I took the plunge.
From the kids' point of view, it is anthropological research: The basic aim is to examine every single toy/stuffed animal/costume/game/snack the host family may own. In the course of their investigations, the kids will pretend they were raised in caves and have never seen these objects before. Accordingly, the cavekid will thoroughly empty out every single shelf and drawer, making a huge pile in the center of their bedroom, and whoop and dance about it.
The ensuing chaos is very pleasing to the pack of wild cubs. Sometimes they also climb on the pile (which is safely cushioned by all their bedding and stuffed animals) or sit in a circle around it shouting, "Bonfire! Bonfire!" (It has seriously crossed my mind that burning the stuff may be preferable to re-sorting all the puzzle pieces.)
More often the younger kids will spend the time trying to snatch oddly desirable plastic bits and bobs of broken or lost toys from each other. The one with the most bits is generally the one who cries the least. Generally.
Then one must offer refreshments to the pack. At first, silly me, I had tried to sit them down to a proper meal. Inevitably, the visitor doesn't eat anything with (choose one or all) milk, wheat, peanuts, real food... So I have given in and adopted this country's ways: an individual baggy of "whatever." It can be anything from cucumbers to Bamba; the important thing is the baggy.
Initially I would try to rein-in the madhouse. Now I've decided that it's better to be on damage-control duty and merely pass the time with the visiting mother while the kids rip our house apart.
"Love the kid, love his mother," seems to be the theme of this stage of social development. Which can lead to new friends - or really sticky situations. I don't like my children to be in smoky environments. So what do you do if your kid's new best-friend lives in a house of smokers? Invite him over, of course.
AS WE approached our first non-family birthday party, Ya'ir anticipated all the junk food, and I foresaw several hours of boredom. Entering, we saw the select few preschoolers, most of whom I recognized (good mother points). In a fit of inspiration I told Ya'ir to give the present to Liyah. He looked up at me with his brown doe eyes and innocently asked, "Which one?"
"The one whose birthday it is, silly billy," I told him, dismayed there were at least two such girls I had overlooked (points retracted).
It was a small family party, with chairs set up in two narrow rows on either side of the hallway for the chaperons. We few mothers and fathers were the definition of wall flowers: The mothers made small talk among ourselves while the fathers sat morosely in silence.
The whole apartment was awash in pink Disney princesses. The grand finale was the very pink birthday cake in the shape of a castle, complete with little decorative princess dolls, all quickly defiled when Liyah's over-exuberant father shot a glitter-filled party cracker with less than perfect aim. (If looks could kill, her mother would have been a murderer.)
One mother lamented she could never compete and I suggested we start a new social party: Mothers For Simple Cakes (MFSC). Our slogan would be, "Chocolate cake with sprinkles is good enough for me."
It was a surreal experience, almost like watching a play about a birthday party while the actors, played by Liyah's family and friends, had a very messy ball. There was even an amazing stage crew team of grandmothers in charge of maintenance and refreshments. Near the end of the party, they literally washed the couches and swept under our feet. (I guess that's Israeli for "Ahem, if you would be so kind, the party has now concluded.")
We have another preschool birthday party in a couple of weeks. But this one I'm looking forward to: The mother is also one of the founding members of MFSC and has pledged not to have matching plates and napkins.
The writer is the mother of two-year-old twins and a big boy approaching four.
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