Birthday Parties for Grownups, Vol. 4, Issue 49

Dear Etiquetteer: I recently suggested to my only sibling, my younger sister, that perhaps we should do something in honor of our father's impending 85th birthday (two months from now). They all live in a different, though nearby, East Coast city, and I proposed that I come down the weekend of our dad's birthday, gather his youngest sister and four or five of our cousins, and take our parents and the relatives out for a very casual, very low-stress birthday dinner at a local restaurant in Dad's honor. I asked my parents if they'd be up for something like that, too, as neither cares at all for surprises (both said they were willing).Suddenly, though, my mother and my sister start talking and concoct a very different plan, producing a guest list of 20+ relatives, including some from across the country (but leaving out one cousin in California who has been a huge support to both of my parents). My sister announces that my mother "expects" a rented hall and a big spread. When I complained that such a large affair was not my intention, either emotionally or financially, I was told by my sister, "but it's not supposed to be about what you want--it's his birthday."I, admittedly somewhat crabbily, told my sister that I had not been consulted at all before she and my mother co-opted my suggestion and morphed it into something I had never agreed to, and that I was not sure at all if I were comfortable agreeing to such a big party. I wanted something much quieter, more intimate, and personal with my dad, and now I'm cast as the bad guy and the skinflint if I don't play along.So, my questions are:a) was it a breach of etiquette for my sister and mother to re-invent my plans without consulting me, and was it a further breach for them to continue on in that vein even after I objected?b) was it a breach of etiquette for me to have complained in the first place--i.e., should it not matter what I prefer, even if I'm the one who raised the issue in the first place?c) is it wrong to leave out my cousin in Northern California, when my dad's eldest sister and her daughter from Los Angeles are invited?Dear Hijacked:Great Jehoshophat! You’d think this was a wedding with all the drama going on. Your sister is only partly right when she says your father’s birthday isn’t "about what you want." It’s alsonot about what she wants, and it’s not about what your mother wants, either. It’s really about what the honoree wants. On the other hand, and Etiquetteer’s been put in this position before, honorees will agree to whatever is asked of them because they don’t want to be seen as demanding divas.So, to look at your specific questions:a) Your mother and sister, while they may have had the best of intentions in planning a larger affair, owe you an apology for not bringing you into that discussion immediately, especially since they expect you to pay half the costs. Once you’d objected, it was up to both sides to create a compromise. Etiquetteer hopes they will apologize. You may have to explain again how hurt you are, and why you thought a smaller celebration would be what your father wants instead of a bigger one.b) No, Etiquetteer can’t say it was out of line for you to raise objections, but it wasn’t Perfectly Proper of you to do so in an admittedly crabby way. Etiquetteer’s dear mother has said more than once "When you lose your temper, you lose your point," and of course she’s absolutely right.c) Etiquetteer is grieved beyond belief to hear about the callous exclusion of your cousin from Northern California, especially if she has been "a huge support" to your parents. Put your foot down and insist that she be invited. Even if she doesn’t attend, she will have had the opportunity to decide for herself.Now the kind of compromise Etiquetteer would propose if he was running this party would be to reserve a small private room for 20 at a local restaurant with a three-course menu plus birthday cake for dessert. Best of luck as the arrangements continue!

EXAMPLES FROM THE DAILY LIFE OF ETIQUETTEER: Sacagawea appeared at Symphony Hall a few weeks ago. At least Etiquetteer thinks it was Sacagawea; it was rather hard to tell given that her fur hunting cap and nappy, scruffy-looking brown yarn poncho concealed most of her features. Etiquetteer recognizes how difficult it is to balance Basic Warmth with Perfect Propriety, but really, it isn’t THAT difficult. Anything that looks like you might also wear it stalking game in the woods should not be worn to a theatre or concert hall. That includes hunting caps (yes, even fur ones), down jackets, hiking boots, and especially denim.But the character who really took the cake was the man in the front row obliviously wearing his bright white-and-crimson Harvard baseball cap throughout the concert. Every time the conductor approached the podium, this man would standand wave his baseball cap in the air as though he were at Fenway Park. At the end of the concert,he shook the concertmaster’s hand, and then even the conductor’s! (Those worthies took it in stride, without even batting an eye. Noblesse oblige . . . )

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