EXCERPT FROM SORROWS & SONGS
Happy Birthday Baby
I recovered from the measles in time for my eighth birthday. In preparation, Mother suggested a birthday party breakfast for the ten little girls in the neighborhood. She and I planned the menu together. Cocoa with marshmallows, fresh squeezed orange juice, French toast, little sausage links, and of course birthday cake with pink icing—special treats in a year still scarred by the Depression. When I came downstairs on the morning of the party, I couldn’t have been more pleased. The dining room chandelier was scalloped with crepe paper, and a Happy Birthday! swag festooned the mirror over the buffet. Our best lace tablecloth for special occasions already covered the table. At each place there was a pastel nut cup filled with pastel mints and a pink snapper that promised a party hat and streamers when it popped. Near the top of the plates were small favors wrapped in paper printed with adorable kittens tumbling in ribbons. It was all I could do to wait until the guests would arrive at eleven.
They never came.
The house was empty. Dad and Barrie had gone on a father-and-son hike so that the house could be just for little girls for a few hours. Mother and I sat on the upholstered horsehair oak couch in the living room. I felt sick to my stomach; my throat had a painful lump that made it hard to swallow. Otherwise, I was numb, staring into the stillness. Finally, with resolve, Mother got up and stood directly in front of me. “It’s not about you,” she assured me, “It’s about me.” She went on, “I don’t fit in this one-horse town. All of their mothers are common. They’re all jealous of me.”
I knew what she said wasn’t true, but I wasn’t sure if she believed it. I breathed, “It’s not your fault.” I was grateful to her for trying to make me feel better, but it really didn’t help. “I wish I could hurt for you so that you wouldn’t have to,” she said, her face contorted with pain. It made me want to cry. My chest and my throat ached unbearably. We went into the dining room and picked at the French toast that she made for us and then quietly cleaned up. We made small talk, pretending everything was all right.
Two hours later, Barbara, a little girl who lived across the street, rang the front doorbell. “I can’t stay. Here. This is for Janice.” She handed my mother a present for me. Mother urged her to come in while she called her mother. I sat immobilized, the pain of humiliation and rejection seeping into my pores. “Please let Barbara stay for some birthday cake,” she pleaded on the telephone. “My daughter’s so disappointed.” The answer was no. I had no idea then that my parents’ drinking at the umbrella table in the back yard and Mother passing out in the yard were probably the reasons for the neighborhood boycott. Somehow, even today it doesn’t make me feel better to realize it, nor am I fully convinced that I wasn’t personally rejected by the little girls on my street. It’s a scar that is still tender to the touch.