I have a friend, Diana, who has been invited to a surprise birthday party for a friend of hers. Here's some info on the honoree:
1. She's turning fifty, a biggie as far as milestone birthdays go.
2. Her husband left her at the beginning of this month to run off with a twenty-something bimbo and she found he'd been planning his departure since last summer.
3. She and her husband have an eight-year-old son who has been devastated by his father's defection.
4. She is, according to Diana, a mess. As you might expect.
My take on these circumstances is, could there possibly be a worse time to spring a surprise birthday party on someone? Okay, worse is a relative term. Maybe, then, after she returns home from having major surgery? Or finds out that her house has an issue with pervasive mold and has to be razed to the ground? Or discovers that her third grader is actually a crime lord at the front of a major drug cartel operating out of his elementary school?
My firm belief is that surprise parties are only for the ten-and-under set. Children are the people who are best disposed, due to their innocent, eager, rambunctious natures, to the rigors of people jumping out from behind the furniture or out of the PlayPlace equipment at McDonald's, as it were . Mostly because they are the ones the least likely to be caught at the end of a difficult day, slogging home with hurty feet and faded makeup and a headache due to having nothing for lunch but a Little Debbie Nutty Bar out of the snack machine.
Here's a personal example: When my husband and I were engaged with our wedding only a few weeks distant, three people from the small private Christian school where I taught decided to give me a surprise bridal shower. One of them was a person who didn't like me very much -- the feeling was mutual, so one big surprise was that she had a hand in it -- another was a fellow teacher, Linda, who was a grand gal, but one who had the sensitivity of carrot, and the third was my friend Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen was the kindergarten teacher, and if there's ever been a tiny little woman with a wit that could cut through like a hot knife through soft butter, it was her. To her credit, she didn't give away the secret (she chalked this up to Christian integrity, which at times can be a burden to us all) but she collared me the next day and said sourly, "I hope you know that I had nothing to do with that mess other than ordering the cake. Those other two railroaded me into it because we're such good friends and they needed to use me as an excuse to pull off a party that I told them long and loud you'd hate."
The day of the surprise shower had been a hectic one. I am a very punctual person, so when my alarm clock failed to rouse me that morning, I woke up twenty minutes past my regular time and thus was a little skimpy on the hair and makeup so that I could get to school on time. The outfit I was wearing was utilitarian, to say the least: black pants, a white turtleneck and a pale pink Shaker knit sweater. Not my most attractive ensemble, but I was in a hurry. The only attractive thing about me that day was my engagement ring.
It had been an exhausting day and I was longing to get home by lunch time. The afternoon had never stretched out so slowly, and the students in my class all seemed to be particularly obtuse and ill-behaved. By the time three-thirty rolled around, I was not only ready to quit the day, but also my job and my entire career and go off to find work in a foundry. I gathered up my stuff and headed out to the parking lot, only to see my mother getting out of her car.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, amazed.
She looked shifty, as I recall, but I was tired and stressed out and not too swift on the uptake. "Oh," she hedged, "I wanted to come and borrow that book you were telling me about? The one about the....something? Remember when we were talking about the...something....the other day?"
I just stared at her. "No. I don't remember talking about the something, or owning a book about the something or telling you that I'd lend you my non-existent book about the something."
"Maybe I'll remember by the time we get upstairs to your room," she said hastily.
"Okay," I said unwillingly, and turned around to go back inside. Mom walked beside me, darting glances from side to side like Peter Lorre in some 1930s gangster movie. We got back upstairs to my classroom and wouldn't you know it? She couldn't remember the subject or the title of the book about something, this elusive, mysterious book on an elusive, mysterious subject that we'd apparently conversed about at length at some unspecified time in the past.
While we were walking back downstairs, she said in a voice bright with false enthusiasm, "Hey! Let's go see JoAnn and Fayrene! I think they're in the chapel!"
JoAnn and Fayrene were the secretary and bookkeeper who worked on the church side of the building and at 3:45 in the afternoon, the likeliest place to find them was at their desks, but whatever. We walked down the long hallway that separated the school from the church offices and I heard giggling in the distance. I shot my mother a suspicious glance, but she was making like Peter Lorre again and didn't catch my eye.
We walked into the chapel to squeals and shouts of "SURPRISE!" which caused me to recoil in shock and fleetingly decide to smite my mother for not directing me to the staff bathroom so that I could at least try to do something with my flat hair and shiny forehead.
"Oh, wow!" I said weakly. "Gosh! Gee! Haha ha ha, you all sure fooled me!" The three perpetrators were in the background, Linda jumping up and down and clapping with glee, the co-worker who disliked me standing with her arms crossed and a gloating smirk on her face, Mary Ellen glowering and looking like she'd like to kick everyone assembled in the groin.
There were lots of pictures, of course. They show me opening a display of naughty lingerie -- who knew that little evangelical church ladies could be such skanks? -- right there in front of my mother IN THE CHAPEL and thank heaven and all the angels we weren't Catholics in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament . Everyone else had had the opportunity to freshen up and a few even appeared to have changed clothes. In every picture, I look haggard and tired and even my deepening blushes at opening my third pair of crotchless panties didn't make much of a difference. The only picture I didn't put in my wedding scrapbook was the one snapped right after I opened the gift from the hostess/co-worker who didn't like me: in spite of the fact that I was a very average size 10 at the time, she got me a black lace teddy sized 2X.
"I just guessed on the size," she tittered and as the picture was snapped with me grimly stuffing the absurdly gigantic outfit back into the gift bag, my expression of utter loathing for her was captured forever, courtesy of Kodak.
So I personally feel that surprise parties are the very divil, an opinion backed up by three surprise birthday parties I've been invited to as an adult, none of which went off quite as the jolly little party planner expected. One of them even featured the guest of honor bursting into tears and retreating from the restaurant to sit in her car in the parking lot so as to pull herself together. Surprised? Oh, yeah. We ALL were.
If you still aren't convinced, read this little blurb from a How-To website on throwing the "perfect" surprise party and imagine yourself as the lucky surprise-getter:
"Make sure you have a key so that you can handle last-minute preparations. Preparing for the party while the recipient is at work is a good idea, and then you can spring the surprise on the recipient when she gets home."
What right-minded person would ever feel that this would be a great plan to spring on a friend? You know it's going to happen on the very day when she started her period unexpectedly and had to walk around all day with a run in her hose and remembered after she got to work that she'd meant to put gas in the car, but left her debit card at home on her desk. And you know she's going to want to kill every single one of you and is thinking, even before the sounds of your joyful yodels have faded from the air, about her unmade bed, the dirty dishes in the sink from dinner last night, and the box of tampons sitting there on the bathroom counter.
So my feeling about a surprise birthday party for this woman whose husband just skipped out three weeks ago, who is turning fifty, whose son's life has been turned upside-down because of his stupid father's preference for sex with a chippie young enough to be his daughter, who is "a mess" of emotional pain and worry about her future and her son is that all the invitees should JUST SAY NO.
And then they should all quietly inform the birthday girl about the big, jolly surprise that's awaiting her on her birthday, to give her time to present herself as she'd like to be presented, to nail a smile on her un-shiny face, to give her an opportunity to mentally rehearse her reaction so that her first inclination to pull the hair right out of the head of her witless hostess and go with something a little more socially acceptable like, "Oh, wow! Gosh! Gee! Haha ha ha! You all sure fooled me!"
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