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Expat Life

The magic of a three-year-old’s birthday

The food is set out moments before the first guests arrive. Balloons are tied to armchairs or left to tremble on the ground, some high on helium, others simply filled with hot air. The mood will soon turn from anxious to boisterous; guests are arriving in carriages, and on foot, embracing with kisses and an almost formal greeting. It is not enough to say, “Hello”. No. You must wish all a pleasant time specific to the day, and it is this extra moment of salutation that best defines, for me, the grace of movement in Cuenca.

The purpose of the festivities is to celebrate the third birthday of a neighbor’s daughter.

The daughter’s family lives in a one-room space used for their medicinal herbs business during the day. I can see their grass mats tied against a wall when I walk by and the door is open, and I am always impressed by how much their home looks like a diorama — a precisely arranged collection of essentials.

The family is using my courtyard as the venue for their child’s party.

And what a party! The centerpiece table, seven feet in length, is cloth-covered, and neatly arranged with ham and cheese finger sandwiches, cupcakes, cookies, a battalion of parfaits standing at attention and in neat rows, and more candies than even the most determined can refuse; dozens of brightly wrapped bite-sized pieces are cast about the table in a Disney of color awaiting the guests who will swell their cheeks and pockets nearly to bursting.

Water and soda are carefully portioned to minimize spills as hasty retreats to the ‘Lil wranglers’ room’ become common. There are games, of course, the most popular being a version of pin the tail on the donkey, only this is a big and mean old longhorn bull with flared nostrils spewing tornadoes of smoke. Personally, I don’t think he wants to be bothered with tales such as this, but I digress…

The party was several hours old when, amidst the damp and sticky sweetness of baby-mayhem, something so soulful happened that my eyes still mist in the memory.

Without fanfare, one of the mothers began to sing a dirge-like song, ‘a cappella’.  It was a coarse and plaintive song, not a child’s lullaby by any means. Instead, it was well-worn like leather and old and spoke of times and friends long since gone — moments preserved in memory like amber.

The hair on the back of my neck rose as I listened. A tingle coursed through me like a slight electric current — and I believe that is what it was. A current; a charge transmitting an unbroken story of time in rhythm with the seasons, and the clouds, and the mountains and the rivers and the birds.

It seemed as if the entire world stopped for the briefest moment to allow this one breath of song to seep through the chatter of empty voices and the clutter of too many.

I will long remember the third birthday of my young neighbor. I will fondly recollect this celebration of her life, still so fresh, that moved one among us to sing to her of time and age and tradition, an age old voice channeling clear through the high mountain passes.

In time, the celebration came to an end; the tired swept up and held close as quiet good-byes mixed with the rustling of children snuggling into adult arms before setting sail aboard sugarcoated dreams. And, then they were gone, each to their own homes and their own stories.

I sat among the ruins in silence, and looked at the moon, mesmerized by her ability to push tides and pull heartstrings.