I was in boarding school a few years after that, which was a great equalizer because nobody had a mom on hand to bake a cake, so there were no birthday parties. I didn’t bother with a party again until I turned 30. It went so nicely that I’m not likely to attempt a follow-up until I turn 40, because I see no reason to tempt fate.

When my nephew was born the day before my birthday, I assumed my responsibility of making sure no one pulled the “Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday” crap with him. Fortunately, Sister remembers how deeply offended I was by the whole experience, so she’s been very careful about it.

My nephew turns three this year, making it the first time he can have a party attended by peers from his preschool. Sister is a little on the fence about it — her inclination is just to do cupcakes and send them to school, thus letting the teacher deal with a roomful of munchkins hopped up on sugar. And let’s be honest: You can entertain a three year-old for the better part of an hour with a glow stick, so do you really need to go overboard with the party planning at that age?

I told her to enjoy the low-pressure birthday for a year or two more, and save the real effort for when he’s old enough to form fond memories. Then he can recall those experiences as an adult, and give her credit for some mighty fine parenting. It’s a much better return on her investment. I reminded her of those awful double-bill parties Mama started doing when I was 10, which probably seemed really efficient to her at the time.

“Topher, what the hell are you talking about?” Sister asked, incredulous. “Mama asked Alex’s mother to do the combo because nobody wanted to come to your birthday party. Everybody said no.”

“What? No they didn’t. Why would that happen?”

“Um, as I recall, that was the year you were all supposed to do book reports as a character from the book, and you came to school dressed in drag as Sally Field.”

“I was not Sally Field. I was her character from ‘Not Without My Daughter.’ And a burkha is only marginally drag.”

“And you seriously wonder why a bunch of fifth-grade boys wouldn’t want to come to your birthday? Alex was REALLY not happy about doing it, because some of the boys from his baseball team wouldn’t come if you were there. But Mama had this whole heart-to-heart with him, and he did it.”

For 20 years, I’d assumed the combo party concept was the brainchild of a working mother who’d found a way to cut her birthday efforts in half, and get it all taken care of before the holidays really hit. I believed that I didn’t manage to get a proper celebration until I reached adulthood. This was not the case.

When I was 10 years old, my mother gave me a present that it took me 22 years to actually look at. She recognized, and was mystified by, the oddity I was growing up to be. She saw the rejection of my peers, and likely knew it was just the beginning. So she did everything she could to make me feel celebrated and embraced, if only for a day.


Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.

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