Last November, Maddie received her first birthday party invitation from a kindergarten classmate in our newly adopted town of Lynnfield. Though we had lived in Lynnfield for twelve months, Maddie had commuted back to Melrose with Nana every morning after our move to complete her second year of preschool with the friends she had come to know and was not prepared to leave behind. All of us had mourned our departure from our old house, our very first house, on a street crowded with the type of people who rang your doorbell on a whim to join your Superbowl party or shoveled your sidewalk for you in the black, frigid wasteland of a power outage without a second thought. Maddie would bang out our front door and hop on her bicycle to join a small caravan of chums pedaling down to the playground; I would turn my back for a minute to water a plant on my back stoop, and Drew would be standing in the driveway, grinning through a soupy mask of red popsicle from our neighbor Anne’s freezer. Like most other preschoolers in town, Maddie’s calendar was stocked with birthday gigs at arcades, kids’ gyms, and YMCA pools. I basked in the understanding that my daughter was a kid who possessed unshunnable qualities—maybe even really likable ones! All was rosy.
When we relocated to Lynnfield, with its stretches of golf course greens and quaint center common reminiscent of small-town early America, the idea of continuing to give our children such a wholesome and safe upbringing thrilled us. But the anxiety of surrendering familiarity with a place that had raised both me and Andrew, as well as the countless connections that we had forged there (with people, sub shops, and shortcuts to 93), sat cross-legged and quiet at the bottom of my stomach. What if our cul-de-sac was lined with really old people who spied at children frolicking in the street from behind their thick drapes? What if we couldn’t afford professional landscaping like every other household on the block? Er—in the entire town? What if the girls in Maddie’s new elementary school had already found BFFs and wouldn’t welcome my daughter into their cliques? Only time would tell.
The moment I caught sight of the Evite in my inbox a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, I sensed some overarching power blowing away in one puff the canopy of uncertainty that had been looming over Maddie’s social future in Lynnfield. Yes—unspoken etiquette determined that the birthday child include his or her entire kindergarten class. But Maddie hadn’t been deliberately excluded, which I considered just as victorious. So far, despite the spunky independence she liked to wield at home, she was blossoming into a rule-following work-monger in the classroom, and therefore had not become “that” kid: the oppositional free spirit who tested every limit and won only humoring tolerance from the teacher. This Evite guaranteed that Maddie wasn’t “that” kid to her peers, either.
Shifting in my seat at the kitchen table, excitement tingling through me like a chorus of miniature silver bells, I leaned toward my laptop screen and clicked on “View Evite.”
Cousins Michaela Landry and Susannah DeAngelis are celebrating their birthdays together! They want you and the rest of the class to join the party!
Ah, yes. Maddie had told me that two girls in her class were cousins. A joint affair near the holidays undoubtedly posed both a few challenges and creative opportunities…my curiosity perked up.
Santa Claus will make an appearance as a surprise guest!
Hmmm. My curiosity receded a little. Like any other kid, Maddie waited all year for this winter occasion to arrive and to ante up all of the toys that Andrew and I had deferred buying over the previous twelve months with the all-purpose phrase, “Put it on your Christmas list.” But Santa Claus himself was a mystery that could stay a mystery, as far as she was concerned. Since Maddie was born, one of my closest friends had been hosting a Christmas bash for her friends and their children, complete with Yankee Swap and a heartily chuckling St. Nick who handed out gifts. Only once had I convinced Maddie to sit on the big guy’s lap, a tragic move that had left his chin beardless and her sobbing against my chest. Even on our trip to Santa’s Village with two other families last summer, Maddie stood in line to register her gift requests with the toyshop boss in the hallway of the North Pole’s most famous cottage only to end up cowering in a corner as far away from Mr. Claus as possible. She snatched her mini candy cane from a couple of fifty-year-old elves and booked it back into the safety of the sunshine. Though my daughter always seemed to be the only one dead-set against participating in normal kid rituals, I often thought in indignation that asking a five-year-old to sit on the hot red velour lap of a man who promised to fulfill the innermost desires of youngsters wasn’t really normal at all.
Please e-mail us with something “personal” for Santa to say to your child. For example, “Lucy, I understand that you have been extra nice to your brother Sam recently.” Send us what you want Santa to say to your child by December 1st!
Okay—well, that was cute. I sighed. Santa would probably have to shout his message to Maddie across the living room to where she would be curling up on my lap and pouting. But maybe I fretted too prematurely. Perhaps a fresh start in the Lynnfield party circuit would charge Maddie with a new confidence…or at least an awareness of new peer pressure.
The morning of December 10th, Maddie exhibited her usual hyperactivity before a momentous event, bouncing around the house that so insensitively contained her and pummeling me over and over again with the question, “How many more minutes until it’s time to leave?” Though she knew that Santa awaited, the lure of a party—crisp bags sprouting tissue paper and curling ribbon, table awash in pink plates, napkins, and flatware, the chance to sit next to the girls of honor as they blew out their candles—temporarily conquered any anxiety she may have been feeling.
The host, mother of one of the birthday girls, approached me and another mom the moment we walked up the driveway, where a few parents milled, not sure whether to stay or go. To my relief, Maddie sped off with a couple of other classmates to swarm the playstructure in the backyard. So far, she seemed to be one of the crowd. However, I knew that my scampering away to run an errand or two would have caused a flurry of tears.
“Hello!” the mom said. She was holding a clipboard and a pen. “Tell me your child’s name and confirm for me what you want Santa to say to her.”
“You’re so organized!” I said.
“Yeah—we’ll see!” she said. Her blond hair swept over her shoulders as she laughed.
I was wringing my hands and smiling with too much enthusiasm. “Now, I don’t know if Maddie will sit with Santa…she can be sort of timid…” I looked at the other two mothers next to me and rolled my eyes as if to say, What a silly little hangup! I have no clue where she gets it. They nodded politely. “But I really love this idea…how smart!”
“Okay, well…” Mrs. DeAngelis leaned her head forward and her tone dropped. “It’s just Susannah’s dad, so don’t worry.”