So yesterday was my son’s fifth birthday party, and what I am about to describe is in many respects absolutely no different than any other parents’ experience.
We were nearly ready to go. After I tucked the youngest in for a two hour power nap, the birthday boy joined me for the terrific errand of picking up the cake and balloons. For those unfamiliar with children’s birthday parties, balloons and cake are critical components to the success of said events.
We landed at our local chain grocery, a large, well established market located about a mile or so from home. A few days earlier I’d ordered (in person) a ½ sheet cake with a rocket ship theme. Pick up was 1:00 pm. Party time: 3:00 pm.
We strolled up to the bakery, birthday boy peeking around me, stretching as tall as an under four feet something can get, to try and see what was happening beyond the counter.
Which was nothing.
There was no record of my order.
This was obviously a huge bummer for both of us, but the lady behind the counter assured me that the cake decorator would be back any minute and she worked fast. I completed the order form (again), and she shooed us off to the home and garden department to fill up balloons in the meantime.
Eyes filled with unwept tears, my brave boy and I marched off, cakeless, to the balloon department.
“Oh, honey, there’s no helium! We haven’t had helium in days!” announced the clerk merrily.
“No helium? Mama?” questioned the birthday boy.
Unsatisfied, I inquired as to the helium situation. Evidently Portland metro is experiencing a helium shortage due to all of the graduation parties and proms that require many, many balloons.
I thought this precious gas was an infinite resource!
Who had helium? I was willing to pay premium.
Nobody. Not a single store in the gigantuam Fred Meyer chain. Not the Dollar Tree. Not even Party City.
Sweating, discouraged, we headed home (cake finally in hand, thank goodness), and a small independently owned party store came to mind.
We pulled up to Boom Boom Balloons, a family owned business not far from our home in North Portland. I warned my son that it may not be open, and they may not have helium. Stoic, he wanted to give it a try.
Cautiously, we opened the door to the small storefront and looked around. A middle-aged woman appeared behind the counter, and she looked nervous.
“Hello?” I smiled, trying to look hopeful.
No response, other than a quiet look.
“Habla Ud español?” I ventured.
“Ahhhh. Si, claro. En que puedo servirte?”
The store owner and I engaged in a twenty minute dialogue in which she described her store’s wares. They included balloons, piñatas and dresses for young women celebrating their quinceañeras, and the story of her immigration to the United States just over twenty five years ago.
She freely confessed she spoke nearly not a word of English.
Having worked from 8 am till 11 pm most nights while raising eight children, she simply hasn’t found the time to study, she explained.
Sounds reasonable to me.
She asked my son, “Cuantos años tienes?
“Cinco”, he proudly announced.
“Y como te llamas?” she inquired.
“Cinco”, he smiled.
Ok, so we have some work to do in the learning of Spanish department.
During our conversation, I was transported to another time, perhaps another lifetime.
This lovely woman was from Michoacán, a state in Mexico that relies heavily on agriculture, livestock, forest products, fishing and crafts for income and trade. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Mexico, primarily in the southern states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Yucatan, but also several weeks in the capital city of Mexico (Distrito Federal). It’s been a while, but I always felt as completely at home as a foreigner could get in my Mexican homes.
Welcomed by strangers, I fell in love with the gentle, funny, and warm nature of my new friends and family members in Mexico. It is a place where my now-husband and I spent six months living, working and traveling together, and finding one another in the process. Mexico is a place where I want to bring our family someday.
At any rate, Boom Boom Balloons saved the day. My son and I cheerily left the building, more than a dozen rainbow-colored balloons in hand. We tucked them in carefully to the car and I managed to drive the mile home without benefit of a rear view window.
An hour and a quick shower later, we arrived at the park to set up the party.
I promptly and accidentally let a half dozen balloons go flying into the sky.
Expecting tears, my newly turned five year old cast an eye upwards and shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, I guess they’re going into orbit”, he observed casually, and ran off to play.
This is the same child who’d threatened meltdown due to the helium shortage in our city.
The party ensued, and it was wonderful. Friends and strangers met, spoke, broke bread and lifted a glass. The kids tumbled and roared. Of course there were a few tears, but generally it was a gift of an evening – for me, for my kids, for our family.