I am seated at a table with fine linens. Even the chair is covered in a linen gown, which makes it hard for me to cross my ankles back under my seat. I am in a suit with a tie, which means that I am way out of my element.
For example, there are two forks in front of me. I have a hard enough time with one fork. I am not a clean eater. In fact, when the food was served, the first thing I did was to drop a delicate bite of the entre with red sauce on my tie and in my lap. I used fork #2 to scoop up the mess and hide it under the edge of my plate.
You might think that I am attending a highbrow wedding. Instead, I am attending a birthday party. This is unlike any birthday bash I’ve ever been to in my life. When I turned 5, I had a few friends around my kitchen table for cake and candles. Pointy party hats and noise makers. By the time I turned 15, I was lucky if I got a card with $5 tucked inside. When our kids came along we took them to Chucky Cheese and played video games.
This is not that.
The setting is the Officer’s Club at Ft. Benning. Large oil paintings of Generals Washington and Patton and Marshall hanging above the festivities on the far wall. The three Georges staring us down. Flags flanking both side walls showing off the colors of the 199th Infantry Brigade and the 194th Armored Brigade. Like I said, I am way out of my element here.
I don’t travel on post much. It’s an entirely different world down here. Attached to Columbus, but not really Columbus. I had to stop at the main gate to get a pass. I had to show my ID to a man at the check point who maintained a stone cold look on his face. I’m always nervous while I’m here.
The Ft. Benning Club is an elegant building. Built in 1934, the stucco walls, red tile roof and window arches are a regal example of Spanish Revival architecture. The ballroom where I’m seated has a high ceiling with exposed wooden beams. The matching winding staircases are decorated with balloons. And up front, right under old GW himself, is a large golden gilded chair suitable for a queen.
Which brings me back to the point of this story. The guest of honor, Emmalee, just turned 15. This is her party. She is dressed in a ballroom gown with a hoop the size of Texas. Her makeup makes me think she could be 25. She even has her own entourage. Teenage girls dressed in fine gowns, boys in white shirts with red suspenders and a red bowtie.
The paternal side of her family is from the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio. A small town where the highlight of the year is the wild game meal in the basement fellowship hall down at the church. I asked her dad about the dress code for this shindig.
“If it were my family,” he said, “we’d all be wearing flannel shirts and bibbed overalls.” My kind of party.
But the matriarchal side of the family is from Puerto Rico where having a young girl turn 15 is a big deal. From where I sit, a really big deal.
In case you couldn’t guess it, this is my very first ever Quinceañera. In the Latino world, the 15th birthday for a girl marks the passage from childhood to becoming a young lady. There is a ceremonial entrance into the grand hall. Couples from both sides of the family are introduced by the DJ sitting behind the flashing lights. Two by two they enter to the applause of those standing at each table.
There are big smiles on every face. Except the boys in red suspenders. Teenage boys are too self-conscious to smile. But the parents are exuberant, especially the mother. She is glistening in all her Puerto Rican glory.
The grandfather on the mother’s side is a retired veteran. He served this country for a long stint and finished as a Colonel in this man’s army. He is the reason we have access to this fine place. He stands up to the microphone to welcome us all and to explain the reasons behind the celebration.
There are many parts to the evening as it unfolds.
Take, for instance, the changing of her shoes. Underneath her magnificent dress, she was wearing a pair of red high-top Converse tennis shoes. Just like you would expect to see on any 15-year-old. None of us had noticed them until she took a seat at her oversized throne up front.
Her older brothers brought over a pillow on which sat a pair of Cinderella-like high-heeled sequined shoes. They knelt. She carefully pulled up her hoop. They unlaced her high-tops. They even made smelly faces at her socks. They slipped on her new shoes.
One brother, not being familiar with straps and latches on women’s shoes, commented. “This is harder than it looks.”
When the transition was complete, she glided out onto the ballroom floor where she danced with her father. Dad says he paid for lessons and hopes he can pull it off. They waltz gracefully around the room. I told him later that it reminded me of that scene from Beauty and the Beast.
“Hey, I took a shower and combed my hair,” he said.
I told him, “I meant the dress,” but I’m not sure it was my best compliment.
A close family friend made a toast to the evening. Her aunt came up and talked about all the years they spent together in her kitchen wearing aprons and learning to cook. Her father spoke about how proud they were to see her reach this milestone in life and how special she is to them.
Then it came time for the Queen of the ball to address the crowd. She looked so grown up. The last time I saw her, just a few days ago, she was in jeans and tennis shoes and doing stuff kids do. Now look at her. The hair is perfect. The lipstick is radiant, but not overdone. And the dress, you already know, is out of this world.
She approaches the microphone.
I don’t know many kids who could stand up in a room full of adults, look them square in the eyes and make any kind of speech. I would have died of fright at 15 if I had been put in front of a mic.
She starts to speak. Her tone is a strong alto voice.
“Well,” she says. “I’m not as, like, scared as I thought I’d be. And, like, this is such a nice evening. I mean, whew. I uh, I uh, I want to thank all of you for, like, coming tonight. Like, this is great. And, like, I’m so glad you came. Whew. (giggle, giggle). Like, I’m having such a great time.”
I smile. Yep, there’s the little girl I know.
Like, Happy Birthday, Emmalee.