We went to a birthday party last night, an offshoot of the weekly kids’ soccer game that has become our latest mainstay. Each Tuesday evening, several families gather in the lower field of a nearby schoolyard, children and potluck snacks and water bottles and bicycles and picnic blankets in tow. J’s four children drag their nets across the street and down the field. M brings a bag full of purple and yellow cloth strips that the kids tie around their heads or their waists to indicate their teams. L brings an entire watermelon, sliced. T blows his whistle and get the kids to line up by height, somersault across the field, give him 10 push-ups to warm up. S, who lives across the street, is the default bathroom stop for kids who just can’t hold it. At least one toddler eventually ends up naked. The little girls get hot and strip off their T-shirts; boys show up in pretty dresses if that’s what they feel like today.
There is a game of sorts, and then a break, and then a kids-against-grown-ups game, and then eventually we all scrape our children together, pluck them from the trees and the hills and the sidewalks, and make our way home, past bedtime and worth every minute of it.
Last night, J’s younger son turned eight, and the soccer game expanded to include tables and a potluck dinner, candles and cake, three-legged races and stomp-the-balloon and garbage-bag crawls and a cup-decorating station and the birthday boy high on contraband Fun-Dip. Grown-ups picked up broken balloon pieces and swung random children through the air. One child wondered aloud if there was an extra piece of birthday cake for him, and his dad indicated an abandoned half-slice on a plate on the ground: “Go ahead and have that one,” he said. “It doesn’t look like anyone is eating it.” And I thought: My kind of people.
Just as all the tables were set up, all the food spread out, the canopy stretched over top, we saw two police officers slow down and then stop their car across the street, open the doors and climb out and make their way, slowly, towards us. And I thought, Oh come on. Do we need a permit? Are they going to shut us down? Can’t we just gather in the park for a picnic without the cops arriving?
And one of the officers said, “We’re looking for a little girl who’s gone missing.” And I felt a rush of shame. Were all the kids here — all the girls — present and accounted for? No one extra? “Her name’s Angelica,” said the officer. “Apparently she comes here to play sometimes.” And we all scanned the field, picking out our own children and everyone else’s, hoping to spot one more girlish body in the mix. She wasn’t there.
The cops left. We returned to our festivities, the mood picking up fairly quickly in spite of it all. Games were played, cake eaten, new balloons tied around ankles and sweaters donned in the fading light. J brought a bag of tiny gifts for the kids, including a roster of fairy wands with pink ribbons tied around them. I found Rowan, perched in the lower branches of a crabapple tree, surrounded by children, and handed him one. “What is it?” he asked. “Your magic wand,” I told him, and he was into it immediately, shouting “Alakazam! I’m turning you into a turtle!” all the way home.
Of course, magic wands in the hands of four-year-olds are delicate proposition, and so I’ve Scotch-taped this one back together. Given its provenance, I’m fairly certain there’s still magic in it. Fingers crossed for enough magic in the world to make sure Angelica is safe.