Standing on my tip-toes I lean close to the mirror. I pucker my lips one more time, and as I press the lipstick into the creases of my lips, the waxy smell catches in my nose. For a moment, I am a child, 6 years old, maybe 8, sitting on my mother’s tall four poster bed, watching her examine herself in her bathroom mirror. My sister and I are in a puddle of play makeup, my mother’s castoffs, and we are decorating ourselves with as much determination and purpose as my mother demonstrates from her polished stance. I am opening tubes of lipstick to choose a shade for my sister. The Saturday lineup on PBS plays from the TV in the corner, likely The Frugal Gourmet, or by now it may be late enough for This Old House, back when it was hosted by Bob Vila. We will have had milkshakes for dinner, made with bananas and raw eggs, and my father will have already gone to get the babysitter.
Shrill laughter is coming from the hallway, and it’s my own children now who are scurrying underfoot, eager and watchful as Mark and I put the finishing touches on our outfits. Mostly, there are few similarities between my grown-up social life and the fancy way I remember my parents going out. Ours is a more home-grown way of entertainment, nothing like their elegant dinner parties or restaurants. Tonight, we’re out to celebrate a friend turning 40, this birthday marking out milestones of life. Tonight, I’m wearing the tall heels, finding the right jewelry. I’m full of jittery energy, the combination of leaving the little ones for the evening, and simple uncertainty in my ability to behave like a grown up.
Later, I laugh at my own insecurities. The tedium of party small talk breaks open into rich conversation, and we hardly move all night as friends, old and new, dance in and out of these threads of talk. By night’s end we have ebbed our way through vacation recaps, and updates on kids, into truthful territory of aging, and great stories of Remember When. The spark of a good time landed on us, just for showing up.
What seems like just a good time to me must seem like magic to the seven year old who is embraced and passed along clumps of family and friends all night. When your dad is turning 40, and the hero of this party, it means that you, too, are a kind of hero. Under that backyard tent, warm wind threatening to blow out the tiki torches that keep the mosquitoes at bay, I wonder how he’ll remember this night. To not be ushered to bed as the sun falls behind the horizon, and the music gets louder, but instead take a seat along the edge and be entrusted with this: to hold the memory and make the story. To bear the gift of the grown-up talk, laced with politics and the occasional bad word, to see the emotion your dad carries at the demonstration of how much he is loved. Of not knowing, really, what any of it means, but knowing all the same that it is magic.
I’m in another party tent, this time of my own childhood. My sister and I are zipped tight into sleeping bags under the table where above us the grown-ups have gathered empty cocktail glasses, and maybe almost forgotten that we are there. We are at Princeton University, celebrating some reunion of my dad’s class. From our vantage point my sister and I watch the dancing feet of the party that goes long into the night. The heavy beat and bass of the band first beckoned us to dance with my parents, and then later draws us into sleep, it’s rhythm mimicking our own heartbeats. I recall very little of the specifics, but the memory is full of nothing but magic.
Mark and I are now home. I’ve nursed the Littlest back to sleep. We’ve kissed the sleeping lips of the older ones, adjusted blankets over exposed legs. I’ve washed the eyeshadow off my costumed face as Mark spat toothpaste into the sink. I click off the bedside lamp, knowing that tomorrow we’ll tell each other the stories of our night on the town, and the kids will tell their stories, too. These stories will turn into memories which will become magic again.