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Commentary & Opinion

Ralph Gardner Jr: A Pandemic Birthday Party

A socially distanced birthday party.
Lucy Gardner
A socially distanced birthday party.

I’ve always believed in celebrating one’s birthday. The basic reason is that life gives us ample opportunity to be sad and disappointed so why not seize any excuse to have a party?

And that goes double in the middle of a pandemic. To be honest, I thought Debbie, my wife, would balk at the idea this year. There’s the whole social distancing thing, of course. And the testing. And the facemask and gloves. And spraying down your purchases with disinfectant as soon as you get them home from the supermarket. And most of all, though this is a perennial complaint of hers, that it’s all about me or rather that it’s not all about me.

I humbly disagree. I’m not hungering for attention from our friends. Gifts are great but, honestly, they don’t pack the punch they did when I was six or seven and if I really want something I can buy it myself. I prefer to think of my party as a celebration of the season. The trees have leafed out. The weather is consistently warm. Pools and ponds beckon.

But Debbie embraced the idea this year. She thought it was time to break out of our bubble if done responsibly. We’ve had several test runs by inviting friends over for socially distanced drinks in ones and twos. At first they brought their own food and beverages but then we started providing each pod its own cheese plate as well as drinks, disinfectant and wipes to hose down the wine and liquor bottles between users.

A full-blown birthday party, however, seemed a bit ambitious, especially if your age puts one in a high risk Covid category, or if you’re bent on not becoming fodder for Twitter outrage like those, how to put it politely, bros at the Lake of the Ozarks pool party on Memorial Day.

However, my wife has proven organizational talent and experience and decided a modest birthday party with a total of perhaps eight or nine guests could be pulled off; and without requiring anybody to sign a waiver releasing us from responsibility should they contract the disease. Cocktail hour would be held on our deck, reviving the individual cheese plates and disinfected drinks drill. Then we’d descend to the patio for dinner – a side of salmon with several salads.

Her inspiration was that each guest, or couple, would get their own table. Debbie knew this was achievable because she’d thrown a wedding for our daughter Lucy and son-in-law Malcolm at our house almost exactly one year ago and had rented small tables for the occasion.

She did so again – five of them – decorating them with summer green tablecloths and small bouquets of flowers. Unfortunately, one guest couldn’t make it at the last moment so only four tables were required. The spacing, perhaps ten feet apart, didn’t feel like an obstacle to enthusiastic social interaction.

If anything, it was an improvement over previous birthdays that typically occurred at a single long table where you mostly converse with those seated closest to you. The vibe was something like that of a small, intimate bistro where all the diners, their conversational skills enhanced by the beverage of their choice, discover they have lots of friends in common.

The weather cooperated; it was sweater weather, in the low 70’s by the time we sat down to dinner under the stars. And our dog Wallie displayed impeccable manners, falling asleep at our feet once it became clear that we couldn’t be enticed into tossing her soggy tennis ball and that her appetite wouldn’t be neglected when it came time to clear the dishes.

If the event posed any risk it would probably have come from the birthday cake. Not the cake itself – as per my specifications a white cake with mocha frosting – but from blowing out the candles.

Fortunately, Debbie didn’t decorate the surface with a candle for every year of my life. That would have required a far larger cake and a fan, or perhaps a fire extinguisher, to subdue them. I’m slightly embarrassed that it took two breaths to quench the candles that spelled “Happy Birthday”.

But, as I said, we’ve been isolating for months, I have no symptoms and, besides, Covid doesn’t spread easily from contaminated surfaces according to the CDC’s website. My friends and family seemed to have had little hesitation about digging into the cake. I took that less as a vote of confidence in my stellar health than in the belief that while we’ve all been forced to make many adjustments and compromises over the last several months moist cake shouldn’t have to be one of them.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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