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The Lesson of the Empty Piñata

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.

But there was nothing.

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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 any candy.”

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.

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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.

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