"Tomorrow is Babecca's birthday party," Caroline announced solemnly at the breakfast table. "She's four."

Babecca is a particularly vapid-looking doll who arrived at Christmas as "My Bottle Baby" and is rather the worse for wear. Caroline is a four-year-old human whose older sister had just had a birthday party with the resultant monopoly on attention.

"Well, tomorrow I sort of thought we'd -- " I began weakly, knowing I would be outvoted. Even Caroline's older sister, Tabitha, who had never played much with dolls herself, thought the party was an irrestible idea.

"We could make it like in that book!" she proposed enthusiastically. She has a book by Tasha Tuder, the Laura Ashley of children's authors, who writes about kids who never play Star Wars and superheroes but dance around maypoles and give exquisite little tea parties for their dolls instead.

We would throw a tea party for Babecca's birthday, they decided then and there, but with leftover Hawaiian punch from Tabitha's birthday party instead of tea, and no presents.

"Because Babecca's not a real person," explained Caroline.

Grateful for that realization, I agreed to the party -- provided we could hold it in the park across the street from our house, in the shade of a large linden.

After deciding on a few humans and a lot of dolls to invite, we got to work on the preparations. In the Tasha Tudor spirit, we decided to make home-made peach ice cream. For kids' birthday parties we make do with supermarket ice cream, but I figured the dolls wouldn't eat much so we could reap the rewards ourselves. After the fights over you-got-to-crack-the-eggs-so-I-get-to-put-in-the-cream, I decided that a cake mix and color-coordinated lemon-flavored canned frosting would be preferable to a cake made from scratch.

Then we had to prepare the birthday girl, whose sewn-on dress and nylon hair were unbelievably dirty. The kids scrubbed her -- dress and all -- in the sink and even rinsed her hair with Tame. Since I was afraid to put her plastic head in the dryer, we put her on a chair in front of a fan to dry.

Next morning dawned clear and warm -- the party was to be canceled in the event of rain -- but Babecca was still soggy. We turned the fan on again as the kids fought over who got to put the most frosting on the cake, then taped a blue ribbon in the doll's crinkly hair to draw attention away from her water-logged legs.

While Caroline put on a long party dress and her Easter hat, Tabitha and I searched for the remnants of all the plastic and metal tea sets we had ever had. Since there were only cups and saucers, contributed a black Japanese lacquer teapot decorated with a Kyoto scene. To pull the mish-mash together visually, we added a red-and-white check picnic cloth.

Shortly before 10 when the guests -- some of whom are still napping at the more conventional teatime -- were due, we set up some child-size beach chairs and some doll chairs in the park. We also hauled over cradles and baskets for the baby dolls and the tea things, in a play picnic basket. Then the birthday girl was installed in a chair to receive the guests, all of whom brought guests of their own. Annie brought "Butterball," Lucy brought "Victoria" and Elizabeth brought "Kate." J and his brother, Marshall, who don't play with that kind of doll, brought "Peter Rabbit," a giant stuffed toy that took up a child-size chair and gave the proceedings the air of a Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

When the table was set -- with flowers brought by Lucy as the centerpiece -- I brought the cake, ice cream and "tea." I could only get one candle to light in the breeze and by the time everyone had sung "Happy Birthday" to Babecca, it had gone out by itself. By the time everyone had taken a few bites of cake and ice cream, the bees arrived and stationed themselves on plates and in teacups.

That drove the kids, whose attention span is short anyway, to the slide at the other end of the park, leaving me with the dolls, rabbit and bees, feeling faintly ridiculous as I nodded to each passing jogger. After the whole mess was cleaned up, the kids were back and Caroline assured me that everyone had a good time at Babecca's birthday party and could they please have some more cake?

Later I noted with alarm that the ceremonial hair ribbon had been transfered to another doll. Tomorrow, Caroline informed me, was Lydia's birthday.

"How old is Lydia?" I asked between gritted teeth. "Nineteen? Oh, then she's too old for birthday parties." Thank heaven.