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It was May 1977 and my face, along with those of my brother
and his friends, was turned upward, watching the donkey piñata sway from the
rope above our heads. It was my
brother’s 5th birthday, and his friends brandished the wooden baseball bat my
dad handed them, each person hoping with each stroke, that the donkey’s entrails would come
pouring down. When the biggest kid in
the whole neighborhood knocked the abdomen across the park, we all rushed in.
The piñata was barren — no jolly ranchers, no tootsie rolls, no bazooka
gum. My parents looked at each other in
horror. My mother mouthed to my father,
“We were supposed to fill it with candy?”
They didn’t know. They bought the damn thing thinking it was full of booty, and piñatas
in 1977 didn’t come with a trap door for candy. Or directions on how to fill it. I don’t remember laughing at the time, but now it’s one of my family’s
most cherished memories. Remember the piñata?
I love that story.
The best thing about the piñata story is that it’s not some
white-washed tale of how my parents did everything right. No one’s ever pinned an empty piñata on
Pinterest. It’s not a story about my
parents setting impossible standards that I could never live up to. It’s not about a homemade cake that took
hours to perfect or handmade favors that turned into heirlooms.
My parents did tons of things right, but still, the memory we love the most is the one where something went wrong, where they didn’t know what they were doing.
The piñata story is about a mistake. An honest mistake made by two parents who
were doing their best to show their newly-minted 5-year-old and his friends
a good time. It’s also the story of
their sense of humor — they didn’t bow their heads in shame and avoid all the
neighbors after flubbing the highlight of the party. No, they laughed. They moved on. They served cake and gave us
penny whistles and kept their perspectives and sense of humor about them when
parents showed up to pick up children full of stories about the “piñata without
Now that piñata is a symbol for me — a symbol of a great memory that didn’t come
about because my parents knew how to throw the perfect birthday party. Nothing happened that long ago afternoon that
would threaten Martha Stewart. My
parents did tons of things right, but still, the memory we love the most is the
one where something went wrong, where they didn’t know what they were doing,
where their vision fell apart in front of a bunch of rowdy kindergarteners with
access to a bat.
In my own parenthood, I’m always striving for elusive
perfection, around birthday parties, family dinners and everything else. It’s
exhausting and unrealistic. The piñata
story helps me remember that perfect memories are fine, but they are not everything. And I never know how one of my so-called
screw-ups may one day become my children’s favorite memories. Most of all, if I can learn how to laugh at
my mistakes and the things that don’t go right, then I can also teach my
children how to as well, and all of our memories will be brighter.