It started when MD was really little.
His birthday is on the 5th of Av, during the nine days, so he could never have a party on his actual birthday. It did not matter for his first or second birthday. But as he grew older, and became aware of his birthday, he realized that he was the only one whose "special day" was..., well..., not that special.
I wanted to do something special to mark the day.
What has now become a firmly established family tradition, began 7 years ago, in the summer of 2001, when MD was 5 years old. Now, after 8 years, my son's birthday is one of the most special days of our summer.
The day has developed its own rites and rituals -- every year we do the same things, in the same order; we even eat the same foods and the same snacks.
It might not sound like much, but every one of us (my son, both my daughters, and I) looks forward to MD's birthday.
That first year, I checked with my Rav (Rabbi), who said that if we were only going with one other family, and keeping things "low key", then it was okay, and not really a celebration. So we went with IS and her family, and have been going together ever since.
Every year, we meet at Gan HaVradim (The Roses Park), in the early afternoon. Well, to be accurate, we intend to meet in the early afternoon.... we do not always get there on time.... This year was no exception. It took IS longer than planned to get ready. (Remember, she was preparing everything for both our families!) I took advantage of her delay, and took a much needed nap!! (because I am still so tired)
We always start out in the Japanese garden. This magical enclave has always enraptured our kids. There is a small waterfall, and a tiny stream that leads to a small lake with lily paddies. The kids always find wonder in playing in the waterfall and stream. (One year, they pretended they were following Moshe Rabeinu (Moses)) The water cools everyone off in the afternoon sun.
When we arrived this year, there was no waterfall, no stream, and NO LAKE! It was a bit shocking, not a little ugly, and... disappointing. The disappointment did not last long. We simply decided to skip that part and went straight to our usual "hangout" in the large grassy area, next to the Pine trees.
We spread out our blankets. For a few minutes, we just lay down, "stalbet" (doing nothing).
"I'm hungry," one of the kids called out.
"Let's have corn-on-the-cob," suggested IS. All the kids enthusiastically agreed, and reached for the fun corn holders.
Afterwards, we all played Chayei Sarah (a variation of SPUD) -- even the moms!
It is amazing how that one game can be enjoyed by kids of all different ages (in our case, from 5 to 42!).
In the Israeli version, the game begins by throwing a ball into the air; anyone can catch it. The person who catches the ball tries to hit another person with the ball. If the ball hits the other person before it touches the ground, that person is out. If the other person catches the ball before it touches the ground, the thrower is out. When the person who got you out gets out, then you are back in. So, there are natural breaks (when you get out), lots of running around (trying to catch or avoid the ball), teamwork (getting someone else out, so that others can come back in), and good sportsmanship (everyone moves in closer, so the person throwing the ball has a chance). Since there is constant movement out and in, there is good spirit when someone gets out. Everyone keeps track of who is in and out; if someone out is not paying attention, and does not notice when they can rejoin the game, everyone calls them to come back into the game. The "winner" gets one "free pass" during the next game (meaning: if they get out, they can either stay in or return to the game when they want, independent of who got them out). Games last quite a while, with everyone enjoying both the running around and the breaks.
We played two games, before breaking for supper.
Every year, there is a large group of martial artists who practice on the lawn, not far from where we sit/play. A few minutes after we wondered why they were not in the park this year, they started showing up.
As we were eating, we watched them practice. Some of our boys did warm-up exercises (push ups, etc) with the group. When the martial artists were practicing their forward rolls, MD tried, unsuccessfully, to copy them.
It has been many years since I practiced martial arts. But I was drawn in; I wanted to do forward rolls too. At one point, I realized that it would help my son, if I demonstrated a forward roll for him. I took a deep breath, prayed that my body still knew what it was doing (and that I would not break anything), and did a forward roll.
It was great! I checked... everything still seemed to be in working order. So, I did another one. I knew my form was still good, because I landed in the correct position.
My son seemed to understand what I was trying to show him, because after that, I was able to spot him, and help him begin to learn how to do it. (It takes more than one afternoon to get it right).
Once I helped the kids break through their "inhibition barrier," Y and A started doing gymnastics too. Y has a great cartwheel! I tried to do a cartwheel, but that hurt my wrists (thanks to my arthritis; nothing to do with cancer), and I realized that I could no longer do it right. So, I helped spot A with her back-bends and Y when she did a hand-stand into a back-bend. The coolest thing was when Y explained to me exactly what I needed to do to spot her! She also corrected me on how to spot A. Y learned all about spotting in her 3 week training course for assistance gymnastics counselors.
When we tired of all these calisthenics, we set up the "ring toss."
After that, we took out the Frisbees. Again, the warm and supportive group atmosphere made the Frisbee toss great fun! Everyone was careful to be inclusive, and pass to everyone in the group, even the "little" kids. Supportive comments were constantly being shouted across the field: "nice throw," "good try", "you almost got it," "great catch!" It was especially nice to see the kids helping each other, giving pointers, and making sure that everyone felt good about what they were doing.
The sun was already setting, and it seemed a shame to break up the game.
IS had the great idea of forming a pyramid. So, we all got down on our hands and knees! We made one 4-3-2 pyramid. YE took a great picture of that! Then we asked someone else to take our picture, and tried for a 4-3-2-1 pyramid! That was harder, but I think we did it!
Then we sent the kids off to collect pine cones (to be painted a different day), and IS and I set up the "birthday unparty." We piled plates with potato chips, popcorn, Bissli (classic Israeli junk food -- it's got nothing on American junk food, but Israelis love it!), pretzels, and cookies. Then we set the plates in a circle and called the kids.
We asked a stranger to take our picture. Then we sang Happy Birthday to MD and also HE (one year, we celebrated MD's birthday late, and it was closer to HE's birthday than to MD's. Ever since, our excursion marks both boys' birthdays).
Then we cut up the cake and the "trading" began. "Who wants my ____?" shouted the kids, eager to give away anything they don't want.
As the sun descends below the horizon, we finish eating our snacks and make sure to find our shoes. Within minutes, the park is dark, and it is difficult to see.
The kids start pointing. "There's one!" they call, spotting a bat, "There's another! And another!"
We are the only ones still in the park.
But we are still not finished.
IS has already prepared a pan, filled with soapy water. The kids take straws, crouch around the pan, bow their heads as one and... blow millions of soap bubbles. There is a lot of laughter during this simple activity.
We gather one final time, on the blankets, to sing Birkat HaMazon (Grace after meals). During Birkat HaMazon, I glance at my son. One of IS's twins is sitting on his lap, and I can see my son gently holding him. My heart fills with joy.
Then we are done.
Everyone grabs a bag and we make our way back to our cars.
Every year, I wonder: Will this year be as fun as last year? Will the kids still be willing to play?
As we walk back to our cars, I watch my son walk side by side with IS's son; I hear my eldest daughter laughing with IS's eldest daughter; and I see my youngest daughter, walking alongside IS's twins.
We walk in step with each other.
This year was even better than the last.
Please daven (or send happy, healing thoughts) for RivkA bat Teirtzel.
With love and optimism,