"There is so much separation and segregation … But if we could cross the road once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might indeed become neighbors."—Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
Through my apartment window, I watched a recently arrived six-year-old neighbor swing a branch at an imaginary piñata and pretend to ride a scooter by shuffling a short two-by-four. Those early sightings of her, five years ago, cracked open my childless heart. I bought her a stuffed lamb. "What do I do with it?" she asked. I read her books that improved her English. I let her stammer as I discerned deeper vulnerabilities. I taught her how to make omelets, all the while trying to tame an inexplicable wildness, like cajoling her to wear a coat in winter.
I'll call her Niña. For several years now, I've been invited like an extra grandmother into her birthday celebration: balloons and candles, cake and song, frosting playfully smeared across her cheeks—an unfamiliar Hispanic tradition. Last year I recognized Niña's disappointment with a modest family party. This year I heard her appeal. "Can we make a piñata, Miss Evelyn? I saw it on YouTube. So easy."
What do I know about crafts, say nothing of piñata games? I stalled. "First, we'll need a list of ingredients."
She quickly wrote nouns: balloon, glue, newspapers. She cut strips. Then, "Did you buy the balloon?" Envisioning a birthday smile, I acquiesced, not realizing how complicated the gift of a moment can be.
What a mess. A week later, arms splattered with papier-mâché goo, we glued bits of paper to the egg-shaped balloon. Days later we added layer 2, though she wandered off task. "Did you buy the candy?" When the bond plaster dried, I popped the balloon, which lost air slowly like my breath, relieved to see that the casing held. A friend with know-how hooked in a mangled coat hanger and said I'd need a rope. Buttressing support, I added layers and multicolored fringe. Yes! A Latina neighbor wanted to buy a replica.
Finally I purchased candies, which Niña counted and sorted, snitching a few, purporting a worry: "On my birthday I might not get any candy. Little kids have to go first, you know." I didn't.
The two-week construction project ran parallel to negotiations with Niña's mamá. I occasionally touched base, hoping for logistical clarity. "Birthday?" She whispered generalities: "Surprise. Maybe invitations." I cleared my calendar. "Piñata okay?" I asked. "Yes."
A Goldilocks day—not too hot, not too cold—dawned with vague expectations. Until the very hour, I heard no specifics, though I asked. "A party? The park?" "Maybe." "Other children?" "Maybe." Like every Saturday, Niña and I cooked breakfast in my kitchen. Insisting there'd be lots of children, she dropped lots of candy in the piñata, hanging "just right" in a corner. Well before the unspecified gathering—"maybe three o'clock," Mamá had said—Niña went outdoors. Wielding a stick, she bashed the hood of my real, not imaginary, car like a piñata, breaking only my patience, but that was "enough! You need to go home now. Call me when your mom's ready."
I waited. Four o'clock. Five. Niña called about six, eager to eat cake—just family and me. No guest list, no supplemental children. Candles blown, we toted our festive nest of treats to a nearby playground. "Children will come," Mamá assured as she took charge, heaving my borrowed rope over a limb, then securing the treasure.
Sure enough, a dozen girls gathered round. They knew the rules better than I. A blindfold? I hadn't brought one. No matter. As Mamá yanked the rope, the youngest wide-eyed child swung, then another. Standing aside, I watched a party unfold. Would my plaster hold? Would Niña, the oldest, get a chance to strike? Surviving through four batters, the knot loosened. The piñata plunged and split. The children scrambled, Niña leading the way, grabbing all she could.
I savored the scene, cut short by three unexpected observations: Niña giving away her moment—"Here. Take my candy. Do you want more?"—till she'd emptied her party bag, playing hostess, for real; parents thanking Mamá for the fun; and my boast-worthy piñata, tossed as refuse in a barrel.
"Miss Evelyn, why are you crying?" It happened quickly. Niña and Mamá flanked me, as I stammered away my tangled satisfactions and griefs.
They whispered in Spanish, then Niña ran to the swings, leaving us two women, older, younger, standing alone, assessing a community event—is this how it works? Or maybe the moment was more personal, about a child. "At home she always says she loves you." I nodded acknowledgment. "Let's stay awhile," she suggested, leading me toward a bench.
Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table (Upper Room Books), meditations on hospitality. Her personal essays have been published in the Washington Post, Washingtonian, Books & Culture, US Catholic, and Christianity Today.
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