The Part That Lasts

More than 30 years later, what memories are left after a great big birthday party? Hopefully, it’s the ones that really matter.

By Sarah Williams

Feb 2022

Sarah Williams sits in chair
Photo by Brandon AlmsWe've long admired 417-land mom Sarah Williams for her earnest, warm and often humorous writing. Purchase Photo

The best birthday I’ve ever had was the year I turned 8. While most parents rented out a party room to celebrate birthdays at the skating rink in 1990, my mom rented out the entire skating rink. She is an includer, and she doesn’t like to leave people out, so renting out the whole facility meant every child in my grade would be invited to the party.

Yes, every single child. The popular ones. The quiet ones. The annoying boys and the mean girls. The booger pickers and the weirdos. And most importantly to my mom, the kids who never got invited. Most moms would be proud of their attempt to include every child and not think of it another moment. I wasn’t raised by most moms. Knowing the details of a particularly hard home life, my mom went out of her way to pick up my classmate, Patty, on the way to my party.

Patty was excitedly waiting on her front porch and ran out to our car with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. I do not remember a single present I got that year. I do not remember skating around the rink. But I will never forget the face of a girl being invited to a party for the first time.

My mom never bragged about this. There was no life lesson lecture on the way to pick her up. My mom simply paid attention to a little girl with special needs from a difficult home, who was too often excluded for her differences, and she taught me to see that this girl was a lot like me.

Sarah Williams photo from childhood birthday party
Photos courtesy Sarah WilliamsA young Sarah Williams and Patty show off all of their ’90s glory.

I turn 40 this month, so I’ve celebrated a lot of birthdays since then. None will ever top experiencing Patty’s joy of being included at the skating rink that day. Sometimes I wonder what we’ve lost in the era of Instagram-worthy birthday parties. What if my mom had been so focused on the perfect balloon arch that she didn’t have time to swing by Patty’s house? So worried about impressing the other moms that she missed the chance to impress upon me the value of including people different from me? Sometimes I wonder if we spend so much time curating what others see that we forget to see others.

There is nothing inherently wrong with beautiful parties. I love seeing my friends’ creativity. I love honoring the gift of another year of life. But when the balloons have long popped and the celebrations have been lost to time, what will our kids actually remember? There’s no way to know, of course.

But I know something I’ve never forgotten: my mom inviting the girl who never got invited and giving an 8-year-old a gift that’s lasted a lifetime.