The memory returns with surprising force, blooming in my brain like Scotch broom after a good rain.

My brother and I, as grade school kids, are sitting on the living room carpet of family friends. We have just finished brandishing sticks to demolish a bulbous, donkey-like object covered with multicolored tissue paper.

We're happy, because it's rare that anyone encourages us to pulverize something, and even less common to discover candy inside as a result. The friends had presented us with something called a pi"ata, and we busily go about selecting our favorite treats amid the wreckage.

"You know, the shell tastes pretty good, too," Dad says.

Astonished, my brother and I each grab a shard and take a hearty bite. Wait a minute, we're thinking, even as our father is apologetically trying to explain through his laughter that he was only kidding and didn't think we would actually fall for it, that's not brittle, chalky chocolate we're chomping ... that's CLAY.

Yes, I can still remember feeling the grit against my teeth and rinsing my mouth in the bathroom sink until the taste of dirt subsided - about a month later. But we all laughed about it. They don't call us "Gullibolchunos" for nothing.

Still, whenever I see a pi"ata, as I did last weekend, I find myself acting wary.

At least this time it is a giant carrot, and I don't panic and start spitting, because I happen to like gigantic carrots.

We are at a birthday party for Jackson, a smiley fellow with blond hair and blue eyes. His favorite hobbies include napping, learning to walk and clapping his hands until others clap back. He is celebrating his first birthday.

His parents, who invited us among an assortment of friends and neighbors, understand how Jackson might not remember much about this party in the long run. (Then again, many of us a bit older than Jackson get pretty foggy when it comes to remembering certain parties, too.) They understand how marking a milestone at this point is also simply an excuse for his elders to celebrate. They know he is not yet old enough to strike the pi"ata without a little help, and it may be awhile before he's ready to play the great classics, the ones so familiar they sound better as one word: Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, Tic-Tac-Toe, Hide-and-Seek.

All too quickly the years will fly, from only one candle on a cupcake to times when you can't wait for your next birthday to arrive, to years when you proudly present your driver's license, to times when you would just as soon not make a fuss about the ridiculous number of times the earth has ventured around the sun since you were born, to parties where the cake is so crowded with candles you could light a warehouse.

So these early birthdays are important, these birthdays of pointy hats and puppies.

A puppy is among the attendees of Jackson's party. A bull terrier smaller than a cat, Stanley clearly enjoys frolicking with other dogs who could fit his head inside their mouths easier than a shard of a pi"ata.

One of Jackson's neighborhood pals, a boy who appears to be about 4, keeps experiencing technical difficulties with a folding chair. Every time he stands, the chair rocks forward and thwacks him gently on the back. This action does not hurt him, but it startles him. He wails, again and again.

Nearby, a little girl in diapers picks blades of grass in her fist and watches them disappear as the wind and gravity carry them away.

Before Jackson has his go at the pi"ata, he unwraps presents. Among them is a minature lawnmower of blue plastic shaped like a hippo. As he proudly pushes the hippo, it gobbles up clear plastic blocks containing tiny, fake snacks such as thumbnail-sized bowls of Froot Loops.

When the pi"ata moment finally arrives, the task at hand proves challenging - and it should. I am not the first to observe the oddity of this tradition, in which parents hang an object from a string and urge their little ones to use sticks to beat it. "Hit it, honey, hit it until it splits open. Beat the stuffing out it!"

With help from his mother, who made the pi"ata, Jackson strikes the first blow. Both he and the little boy with the chair issues begin to wail at the noise, setting off a chain reaction of wailing among the other children.

But, calming down, pressing on and taking turns to strike the thing, they all begin to see progress. In the end, a 10-year-old boy is enlisted to finish the job, cracking the carrot and relieving it of its misery.

It delivers not candy but delightful toys. The kids find silly sunglasses, musical instruments and, in a touch of realism rivaling that of the hippo lawnmower, a snorkel. Jackson claps his hands, and his friends and spectators clap, too.

I, for one, am relieved. Memories of my own first pi"ata have come and gone, and no one has touched the carrot casing. Still, for some reason, I really want a glass of water.

Brad Bolchunos realizes that even though some pi"atas are made of papier-mache instead of clay, they are always a crackup.

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