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Birthday party for a stranger

I wrote this several years ago, but stumbled upon it this evening and thought I’d share.  In my constant battle against living a mundane life, my own words and experience are a good reminder for me.  I believe that telling stories are an excellent source of inspiration and encouragement–even if we have to retell our own stories to ourselves!

It was a summer Sunday afternoon.  One of my best friends, Cat, and her four kids were piling into their minivan to drive home.  An old Indian woman, with a younger female companion, approached Cat speaking a foreign tongue.  It wasn’t the first time that my friend had been mistaken for Indian, and wouldn’t be the last.  Although Honduran and Puerto Rican by descent, wrap Cat in a sari and she would fit right into an Indian family.  A little taken aback, Cat politely apologized, explaining her Hispanic heritage.  She then also explained that she did not live in the neighborhood.  Cat and her kids drove away.

The elderly woman then turned to me and I could see the years of her life written all over her face, going in directions I didn’t even think wrinkles could go.  White hair, missing and crooked teeth, but a genuine smile.  My two boys were half-naked and running haphazardly around my legs.  I smiled widely, semi-apologetic at the disarray.  The woman began, in very broken English, to invite me to a birthday party for her grandson.  It was to be Tuesday at 5, could we come?  Did I have any other children?  I tried desperately to keep my focus on the older woman, even though the younger one was helping explain the invitation.  Respect your elders was running through my mind, and I did not want to offend.

Despite me trying to give a lukewarm answer about our attendance, the woman would not be satisfied until I’d taken her address and phone number.  Suddenly I determined to go.  I asked if there was anything we could bring to contribute, her answer was no.   A few more moments of agonizingly slow conversation, then the boys and I retreated into the house.

Tuesday evening saw me tired from work, no desire to socialize with friends, let alone strangers.  But I still felt committed to the culture shock that awaited.  Besides, it was a pizza party and I’d promised my boys.  We arrived at the party house, a block over in our neighborhood.  Escorted quickly inside (after the removal of our shoes) by the younger woman from Sunday, we were encouraged to sit.  I began to take stock of my surroundings…

My younger boy was clinging to me as I sat on a plastic slip-covered sofa.  The furnishings in the room were relatively sparse and small.  Two sofas, both looking as though they had survived for decades beneath the clear plastic.  A small coffee table, a chair with ottoman, and a fireplace completed the room.  I took in the basics in a split second, then turned my focus onto the other people in the room.  My older boy had already become the object of attention from a 1 year old little girl.  She was grabbing items off of the coffee table and handing them to him.  He was unsure of how to react, so he let her dictate the situation.  The little girl’s grandmother was sitting next to me.  On the other sofa sat a man; his daughter twirling around in her party dress at his feet.  She looked to be around 4.  In the adjacent kitchen were two women and two more little girls.  The hostess and her helper were nowhere in sight.

Like the room’s furniture, the décor was also sparse.  On the mantle sat a few framed photographs.  Serious, deliberate portraits, most likely of deceased family members.  There was an array of candles in colorful glass tubes.  When I glanced into the kitchen again I saw a shrine on the floor.  Dozens more candles, and then photographs and small tapestries.  The sight of it made me cringe, not because of the reasons it was there, but because of the curious children that were suddenly occupying this museum of a house.

I was confused.  I saw nothing to indicate that we were at a birthday party, I saw no grandson.  What had I dedicated our evening to?  I struck up a conversation with the lady sitting next to me.  She lived across the street, and had little more information than I did.  However, between the puzzle pieces that each of us carried, and with a little help from the Indian man across the room, the two of us came to a conclusion.  We were at a birthday party for a 16 year old living in Chicago and was not even in Charlotte for a visit.  The grandmother, in a desire to celebrate her grandson, had sought to include any children she could find.  Based on the turnout, it looked like most of the neighborhood hadn’t taken her seriously.

I was struck suddenly with a mixture of awe and frustration.  Awe at the elderly woman who courageously canvassed the neighborhood seeking out anyone who would join her in celebration.  Frustration at everyone else involved.  I flashed back to the young woman who accompanied her and saw with fresh perspective why she seemed embarrassed to be handing out verbal invitations.  Frustration at myself for my initial instinct to disregard the old woman.  Frustration at the neighborhood and the lack of compassion people had.  And frustration at this mysterious grandson.  Perhaps this frustration was the most unjustified, but I assumed that even if he knew about what his grandmother was doing, he was rolling his eyes and ungrateful.  I was liberated by all of these realizations, and simultaneously humbled.  How close I had come to missing this experience!

Minutes turned into an hour or so.  My sofa companion and her granddaughter left.  I tried to keep my boys from tearing things apart, while chatting with anyone who spoke enough English.  Finally the hostess reappeared.  She had apparently been walking the neighborhood one last time, trying to find free pizza-eaters.  At last we were summoned to…the garage!  There we were met with boxes of cheese pizza, bottles of soda, and a few hesitant stragglers from the neighborhood.  I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to chase greasy tomato-sauced toddlers around her house.  So we dug into the feast, while our mysterious hostess and her companion served us and abstained from eating.  After a short-while, candy bars appeared for each of the children, and also some home-made bread that I’d never seen before.  Not naan, something different.  The old woman lit up when she saw my younger boy choose her bread over the pizza.  He had seconds, thirds, fourths…all the while giving her flirtatious grins.

Sitting on the floor of a cleanly swept garage, eating pizza and Indian bread with complete strangers found me alive.  Still quiet, still reserved, but fire and passion raging inside of me.  This is the life so easily missed.  To step outside of my own little bubble and experience life with people I may have no connection to.  This is how adventures are had, friendships are born, and character is shaped.  To break out of self-absorption and truly see those around me; that is one of the biggest adventures of all.  So many times I walk around thinking how unexciting my life is, and how I just want to go on an adventure.  But in reality, adventures surround me daily.  Adventures are usually a choice, an attitude.  All I have to do is take a small step outside of my comfort zone and see what awaits.  It won’t always be fun, but it will be an adventure.

That evening, back at home, I determined to not let what I’d learned go to waste.  Even something so small, like bringing dignity and support to an old lonely woman can be such an adventure.  I could have eaten supper at home that night, just a block away from the party.  But I’m so glad that my kids and I made the effort to honor the birthday of someone we will never even meet.

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