Surprise Parties 20

I organized a surprise birthday party for my good friend Sue at a community fair last Saturday. As the plans grew more challenging, memories of earlier surprise parties plagued me: awkward, stressful, botched, and excruciating.

I received one surprise party as a child—for my eighth birthday, organized by an older sister. There were six of us children in our family by then (more to arrive later), and I had never experienced an outing for pleasure alone with my mother. She walked with me to the local shopping center (my father being at work with our only car), and we each ate a donut at Winchell’s. Having this kind of attention from my mother was amazing.

When we returned home, my siblings and a few neighbor kids were there. My mother immediately retreated to her usual place—her bedroom. It became apparent my mother had felt pressured to spend the hour or two with me by my sister while the guests had gathered.

I entered our house to sulk, leaving my guests on our front lawn. My dear sister, who had been sincere in wanting to do something incredible for me, could not understand my ingratitude. She kept calling me a “brat,” until I returned to the party and feigned a better attitude.

Maureen Kay's Childhood Birthday Party

I managed a smile (white, green, and pink dress with belt) but I’m the only one smiling, perhaps because I had ruined the mood by then. Incredibly, Kathy (far left) and Mo (red dress) are still my friends to this day.

As an adult, I’ve been the fortunate recipient of a few wonderful surprise parties. But organizing a grand one for my husband made clear to me I could never do that for him again—sharing the same bed each night, I felt like a liar conspiring with his friends and relatives without his knowledge.

His parents flew in from Minnesota. Confused about the scheduled time, they arrived at our door an hour early–before the ruse to send him on a brief errand. “Surprise” they greeted him when he opened the door to our house devoid of the dozens of other guests about to arrive.

And then there was the time my husband asked what I wanted for my birthday, and I asked him to watch our children so I could go to a restaurant with my women friends. Call me naïve, but I didn’t think any of these new friends (we hadn’t lived here long) would know it was my birthday. I was astonished when the lunch turned into a surprise party I had organized for me.

I imagined the many things that could go awry last Saturday. But when we snuck up behind Sue, shouted “surprise,” and she turned to see us, she was clearly touched, smiling, and wiping tear after tear from her eyes.

Ahhh. Perfect.

About Maureen Kay

Maureen Kay has just finished writing a novel called Fracture. She blogs about her personal experiences, bigger issues, other authors, and her writing journey.

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20 thoughts on “Surprise Parties

  • Kathy

    Dear Maureen,
    What a lovely lovely story and I can’t wait to read more. You’ve captured and condensed so much, past and present. The feelings of angst growing up in a large family, the universal sibling dynamics, worries and joys of being a hostess, and being a part of your story made it all the more lovely. Thank you!
    Love Kathy

  • Sue

    This was such a total surprise! Really touched me.
    Moreover, this is a terrific essay, Maureen. Ties all the pieces together. Keep up the great writing.

  • PS Sawyer

    A picture does say so much. Your discription on large family takes on true form as I look at the young party participants. Your story brought me back to so many childhood memories and the complexities of getting our emotional needs met – or not – as a dependent child. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself!

    • Maureen Kay Post author

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. The photo is striking in how it looks like I’ve depressed all my guests! I think I must have really let my miserable feelings be known to them, but I no longer remember what I said or what I did besides retreating from the party as much as I could

  • Margaret Stonich

    Hi Maureen,
    Loved the story. Your childhood picture brings back memories of what a pretty child you were.
    The only surprise party I was involved with was one we planned for my Mom’s 75th birthday. We invited her friends and all the family. She was very surprised when she walked in the door to find everyone waiting for her. We had all the friends and family members write a special memory of my Mom and put all those missives in a bound album. I have a picture of my Mom reading that album the day of the party. I often wonder what happened to that album of memories. I never ran across it when I cleaned out the house after her death.

    • Maureen Kay Post author

      Thanks, Margaret. Such a thoughtful gift to give your dear mother, a woman who I much admired for her intelligence, awareness of problems in society, and activism to make the world a better place. It’s unfortunate the album disappeared, but I’m glad you have the photo of her enjoying it.

  • Dorothy

    Hi Maureen,

    You are an awesome writer! Your story brought tears to my eyes as my heart ached for the child hurting and then not being understood as hurting, but misinterpreted as a brat, doubly painful. Then sadness for your sister, like so many of us in this life, who make an effort to please someone and it backfires. So glad to hear your surprise party for Sue worked out. You were very kind and brave to attempt it. I look forward to reading more of your wonderful writing.

    • Maureen Kay Post author

      Thanks so very much, Dorothy, for those generous words. And I LOVED what you said about my sister. I’m so glad that part came through, because she is, and was, an incredibly awesome sister in my life. She used to come up with amazing activities, games, and special events she researched from books, and then would get all of us, including the neighbor kids, organized. We all worshipped her (and those of us who know her now still do).

  • Miles

    Sometimes all that planning is worth it! Worth it to know. I know Sue (mom) really, really enjoyed the surprise–she told me so recently when she called. Keep writing!

  • Allyssa Axell

    Maureen, you are a brilliant writer.

    This story, like the rest of your writing, evokes emotions and passions and memories that can only come from knowing how and when to pull back the curtain to expose the Wizard at work.

    Heartbreak and heroes, heroines. Such pain. And always the love.

    • Maureen Kay Post author

      Yes, she was, and is, a remarkable sister. She led the neighborhood kids to play outdoor games she learned from an encyclopedia, created her own version of summer camp for younger children, organized slumber parties on our front yard (dragging out our mattresses and blankets), and used chalk to transform our driveway and sidewalk into any number of imaginary houses or lands.