It started with piñatas.
I needed something to amuse my brothers in the summer, and someone taught me to make papier-mâché piñatas.
To make one, you blow up a party balloon, cover it in a newspaper dipped in flour and water, and then leave it outside to dry for a few days. Pop the balloon, cut open a hole, fill it with candy, and paint it. Then ask everyone to smash it.
Perfect for some Fourth of July excitement.
I wasn’t great at making piñatas. I asked someone I know for balloon animals, so I could make different shapes and, therefore, more exciting piñatas.
He was a clown. Not all the time, of course, but for parades, or the circus, or a charity event, he donned the makeup, the wig, and the costume.
I could not be a clown. I didn’t have the patience or the personality. Besides, taking off (or maybe putting on, I forget) the makeup requires strong-smelling baby oil. He once asked his toddler daughter, “Why won’t lions eat clowns?” Instead of the standard answer (they taste funny), she replied, “Because they smell bad.”
He gave me an instruction book, balloons, and an inflater shaped like a space rocket.
I think he expected me to make a balloon dog and call it a day. But when I returned with a balloon fruit basket — complete with balloon apples, oranges, grapes, and bananas — I was brought on to a charity as a volunteer.
Balloon oranges and apples were easy. You just use a “bee body,” a shorter balloon, and tie a knot in the right place. Bananas just required some twists. Grapes required a lot of twists in a purple or green balloon.
From there it was a snap to make balloon dogs, swords, bees, and hummingbirds. Inflate, knot, twist.
The piñatas quickly became an afterthought.
Two events stand out in my mind. The first was library event, where I made lots of balloon animals upon request. A reporter interviewed me, which, I think, sparked my interest in journalism. She was just like reporters in movies, with a little notebook. I got a mention in a local paper.
On another day, I traveled to a county fair. We made hundreds of balloon animals, for free. One per kid. Kids would come up and ask for a sword, a hat, a hummingbird, or a dog.
Boys tended to ask for swords, but everyone loved the dogs. I’d see them playfully swinging them around as they walked to their cars.
It was fun, but the summer ended (as, sadly, summers do). The next year, I had a full-time job, and less time. I gave back my balloon-making supplies, and other volunteers took over.
Balloon animals seem to have fallen out of style at parties, replaced with bubbles (which are less wasteful).
Or maybe kids now have cell phones and are less enchanted by a bright balloon, twisted into a fun shape, which will only last a day or two. People expect their joy to last. And, of course, I hope it does for them.
But there’s something magical about twisting a balloon animal in a few seconds, and handing it to a kid. “Thank you,” they said, smiling, and went off. Maybe it sparked their imagination, maybe they forgot about it in three days, but in that moment, I made them happy.