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.
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.