I was stopped in a late-morning traffic jam on a dreary midweek trek to college in my twelve-year-old 1979 Fiesta when I chanced upon a curious sight: A grown man, probably around the forty-mark, hanging balloons on the pillars outside his house. He had already taped or tied three onto one pillar and had begun work on another set of three balloons on the second. I was dismayed. When I witnessed him taping up an A4 sheet with the words “PARTY ON HERE” I was totally perplexed. “He must be the saddest man in the world,” I thought to myself as I shook my head with a sympathetic guffaw and edged another three feet toward my destination. “How could a grown man spend time hanging balloons for his child’s birthday (and be seen to be doing so, without shame, on a busy road)?” It was beyond me.
I passed the whole weekend in the pub, telling all who would listen about the amazingly pathetic sight I had witnessed. The very notion that anyone would spend years growing up, establishing a life for themselves and be reduced, finally, to that was so alien a concept that had the man had tentacles growing from his head and two strings of sausages for feet I could not have been more appalled. Why would anyone allow himself be worn down to that?
Now I am that man and I find myself dismayed at my former observations and conclusions. How could I have believed it was anything other than the greatest joy and highest honour to be able, in such a way, to add to the excitement of a daughter or son on their special day?
Don’t get me wrong, I dread the thought of having a horde of screaming children call round to be entertained for a few hours once a year or more and like most sane parents, sadly, pay a premium by booking slots in local playcentres, gyms or cinemas to avoid having to do just that.
In my day a birthday party was spent running around a back yard for three hours (sun, rain or snow), broken only by a five minute interlude to sing happy birthday and eat some cake before being ordered to feck off outside until it was time to go. There were no polite parents sipping tea and eating sandwiches in the living room. There was no music laid-on nor clowns nor bouncy castles. There was a mother there to cut the cake and tell us to stop kicking the ball agains the wall and that it was time to go, but other than that it was a time for kids to interact with each other as kids should, finding their own entertainments and their own position within the group. There was no such thing as organisation or adult-interference. It was Lord-of-the-Flies-or-off-you-go and I doubt you could find many grown ups today who would argue that it wasn’t better that way.
But still, it’s seen as the right thing to do to invite all the kids in the class to little Johnny or Mary’s birthday event and woe-beget the kid whose party is boring or whose party-bag is found wanting.
Party bag!!? I mean, the closest thing to a party bag we had was when someone would empty the kitchen bin on the floor, place it over their head and run around chasing their friends until one was caught or someone knocked themselves out running into a door. If a child tried that nowadays they’d be rushed to the emergency ward for a full check-up and tetanus shot. There’s much we have lost in these past years of plenty.
Still, the idea of a father taking the time to hang balloons outside his house now fills me with an admiration of heroic proportions, for he is either oblivious to the trouble he is letting himself into or he is aware of the trouble and going ahead anyway. Also, he is placing himself in a land where I had never imagined any adult male would or could possibly be seen until late into my teenage years, on a mid-week journey to third-level education where such matters were never touched-upon.