The Garden Party

Years later, a mother’s sad memory is forever changed by her daughter’s very different recollection of the same day.


My oldest daughter, Sophia, turned 5 one month after her father moved out.

I planned her fifth birthday party with the obsession only a newly separated mother could bring to such a task, pouring everything into the details that would make my girl happy, as if a party could make up for the events of the last month.

We’d told Sophia and her younger siblings about the separation over a breakfast of chocolate chip muffins. We explained that Mommy and Daddy would not live together any more. “Not ever,” my husband said, following the therapist’s instructions to make it final, leave no room for hope. I spent that first month shuttling Sophia and her siblings back and forth to visit her father at a hotel.

Then, for three nights in a row, I stayed up late at the kitchen table, making 28 pink daisy invitations to be mailed in paper flower pot envelopes, my first try at origami. I cried as I folded those envelopes, remembering Sophia’s fourth birthday, a huge gathering with both sides of our family—two doting grandmothers, her father playing “Happy Birthday” on the violin.

My party plan involved dozens of Gerber daisies the children would plant in large pots they’d paint themselves. I would set up different activity stations in the backyard: pin the petal on the posy, pipe-cleaner flowers. Every hour at my desk at work I came up with another idea: a catch the butterfly game, daisy chains, pinwheels. Lunch would be tulip-shaped cucumber sandwiches with edible blossoms served from terra-cotta pots, along with raspberry-lemonade tea in flower-patterned cups I’d purchased from Goodwill.

The Saturday of the party I woke at 4am. The rain was torrential, flat sheets of water dropping from a sky as gray as a cookie sheet. I went outside on the deck in my slippers, my cup of coffee quickly filling with water, my eyes filling with tears. I came back into the house soggy, exhausted. I could not catch my breath as I swept out the garage, our new party site. I hung the flower piñata from the rafters, shoveled potting soil into large buckets, and lined up dozens of colorful daisies on fold-out tables.

Cursing as I hung yellow birdhouses from the kitchen ceiling, I blamed myself for the weather and everything that had happened to our family. But as I looked at those buckets of potting soil, I couldn’t help thinking of Sophia as one of the flowers. She had grown inside me, and despite the storm that had destroyed much of our old life, it was up to me to set her roots good and deep. The more I thought, the more I decorated. I filled the kitchen with tissue paper bouquets and wrapped flower-power notepad favors to tuck inside watering cans in the wheelbarrow now set up in the living room. I blew up God-knows-how-many balloons, until I grew dizzy, then queasy.

I was sitting on a chair, head between my knees, trying to breathe, when Sophia came into the kitchen, wearing her pink party dress and click-clack shoes.

“Happy Birthday Party Day,” I said, and hugged her. “It will be an indoor party, even more fun!” Smiling, she ate her flower-shaped pancake. When I took Sophia into the garage, she gasped, her brown eyes wide, and looked from floor to ceiling. “The flowers are winking,” she shrieked, pointing to the bright yellow daisies.

I gathered her to my lap, her small shoulder blades peeking out from the back of the polka-dot sundress, and I wove her long hair—she had been born with so much hair—through my hands. I looked at the garage walls. “The walls are too drab,” I said. “Lets paint them.”

Sophia hopped off my lap and I pulled out the bin of acrylic paints meant for the party. I handed her a stash of paintbrushes. “Make whatever you want, my beautiful girl,” I said, pointing to the long gray wall. Sophia painted a series of flowers with smiley face centers. Above her flowers I painted a rainbow.

Sophia is in seventh grade now. We were looking through her school scrapbooks recently when she paused at the photo of herself blowing out candles at that long-ago garden party.

“You made a butterfly-shaped cake,” Sophia said. “Remember, we painted the garage?”

“Do you remember anything else?”

“There were so many kids, and you whacked the piñata open because it wouldn’t break—all of those girls, and we couldn’t smash it.”

“Anything else?” I wondered if she remembered that it was the first party we had after her father moved out.

“What do you remember?” she asked.

I remembered the rain cracking against the garage walls, and the loneliness, for myself and my children. But now, I also remembered the birdhouses dangling, the flowers winking, and how, when the piñata finally broke, candy fell and the small silk flowers inside fluttered to the floor around my girl, like lucky stars.