Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.Rick Riordan
It is a crisp November afternoon in mid-1970s Memphis and my younger brother is turning seven; several pint-sized partygoers will soon arrive at our modest suburban home to help him celebrate. They’ll step inside the back door into our game room, once a carport, but thanks to a small family bequest it’s now enclosed on the two open ends and finished with carpeting and 1970s-style paneling. Sliding glass doors open onto a new patio just outside, and the furnishings inside are tasteful enough, mainly Art Deco-era appointments that belonged to my grandmother. The doors and windows are newly curtained in an overwrought floral pattern typical of the time, and the low-pile carpeting is an earthy, mottled color my mama likes to say “doesn’t show dirt,” as if one wished to collect dirt but keep it a secret. It is not a fancy room, but more useful by far than it was in its earlier guise; on this chilly day, it will host a small bevy of second-grade boys.
The game room never gets quite warm enough in winter because it is not tied into our home’s central heating system. Instead, there’s a heavy stand heater over in one corner, the kind you hear about on the news burning down people’s houses when it sets nearby curtains aflame. My parents have taken care to keep it far removed from anything and thus it’s doing its job only adequately at best. A dining table is situated in front of a pair of south-facing windows; it is where I spend my evenings toiling and occasionally weeping over impossible prep school assignments, but now accommodates a birthday spread of paper plates and napkins and confetti and party hats. The cake is baked from a Betty Crocker mix into a disposable aluminum pan and iced from a cardboard tub; ‘Happy Birthday Tom’ is squeezed on top in crude script, and seven candles are poked into it randomly.
Earlier that day my mama will have beseeched me to inflate many colorful rubber balloons from a bagged assortment, an exercise that will leave me lightheaded. They’ll be scattered around willy-nilly as decorations, but later on a balloon will be tied around each ankle of each kid, and they’ll play a game where they scurry about on hands and knees trying to pop as many tethered balloons tied to other kid-ankles as they can. I observe to her that this seems like a bad idea, but she insists she found it in a magazine and thus it must be a sanctioned birthday game.
The room is also dry in the cool air of fall and winter, so when the kids are scurrying around on the floor, they’ll generate all kinds of static electricity that makes their hair stick straight up off their little second-grader heads, and occasionally they’ll even zap each other. Maybe if you’re a seven-year-old boy this just adds to the thrill of exploding balloons.
There will also be the standard pinning of tails on a cartoon donkey poster, and we’ll dredge up a few other games from our collection—bean bag toss, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Twister. Since the party is fairly small, there are enough chairs at the table for all the kids, so they’ll take a seat and put on their hats and sing, have their cake and ice cream, and then my brother will open his vintage 1976 presents; it’ll be another year before any presents come with the coveted Star Wars theme.
Then we’ll hand the boys back to their parents all hyped up on sugary confections, with sticky hands and faces, stocked with goody-filled grab bags; happily, nobody will have been injured by exploding latex or static electricity. My brother will retreat to his warm bedroom upstairs to examine the new swag, and life will go on. It is plenty, and it is enough.
Twenty-one years later, on an uncharacteristically warm, sunny February day in Knoxville, my own little boy is celebrating his fourth birthday. Like many birthday parties that are thrown in this grand old neighborhood, this one will be themed. And many more than a handful of children will attend the party with their parents in tow. The children will be clean scrubbed and well dressed, some of the girls wearing big bows in their hair, and their parents will enjoy wine and hors d’oeuvres while the kids paint colorful freestyle artwork on large stretched canvases propped up against specimen oak trees in the front yard. ‘Art’ in fact is the theme of the party; there is no pinning of tails onto a donkey, but instead pinning of ears onto Van Gogh. There is even a bagpiper for entertainment, who will arrive decked out in his kilt and lead the entire party of kids and their parents up and down the street in a Pied Piper-style parade whilst playing his particular kind of pipes. People will pop open their front doors to observe this unusual spectacle in an otherwise quiet bedroom community.
It is showy, extravagant, and expensive, quite the opposite of the Betty Crocker balloon-popping parties we put on for my little brother during the worst inflation years of the 1970s. Who knows why we did it. Maybe because my then-husband and I could, because we were fortunate, and because we wanted to share something fun and meaningful with a community of people. I unearthed the photos taken on that day expecting to cringe, but all I can see in them now is a group of people gathered outdoors on an exquisite day, enjoying good food and good company while their kids play and paint, and I can find no fault in that.
Importantly, there’s nothing wrong with Betty Crocker birthdays, either. Years ago, a kindergarten teacher I knew lamented to me that a particular child in her class who came from a family of little means had the great misfortune of bringing a carrot cake to the class instead of a conventional birthday cake to celebrate her birthday, because her mama “didn’t know any better. Can you imagine—a carrot cake?” she asked, belaboring her point. I don’t recall what I said, probably, Hmm, or some such, but I do recall thinking, what on earth is wrong with serving carrot cake to a kindergarten class. It’s a sugary and spicy delight, and most carrot cakes come with icing. Boom.
It’s not fair is a sentiment someone I once knew insisted is baked into every human at birth. Not fair that some birthday parties come with exploding balloons, others come with bagpipers, and others with carrot cake. There are six presents at some, twenty-five at others, and none at still others.
There’s a bit of folk wisdom you’ve probably heard that so beautifully settles the “fairness” question, and it goes like so, if you happen to be up in New England: You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.
Down here in the South, we say it like this: You git what you git, and you don’t pitch a fit.