I lifted my face to catch the warm breeze rustling through the maple trees that lined the street. I smiled as the filtered sunlight dappled the porch and danced along the floor, walls and my freckled face like little fairies made of light. I was waiting on my older friend, relaxing in a homemade Andirondak chair. Mindlessly peeling away weathered paint bubbles on the wide plank arms, I had almost missed it.
Casually looking up, I saw my friend and her mother leaning toward the open window of a pale blue Comet. I heard words signaling the curbside conversation was wrapping up, “Well, gotta go. Taking Susie to little Beth Stanley’s birthday party”. The rest of conversation faded into babble because the birthday party was indeed a surprise. Still trying to make sense of the words I had heard, I saw my friend walk back to the porch with her lips pressed together in consternation. Shaking her head in disbelief, she sighed and asked, “Did you hear that?” I had heard, but I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what I had heard.
A birthday party for me? How in the world? People were coming?
To say that I was an unpopular child was an extraordinary understatement. Everyday I ran a gauntlet of abuse at the hands of classmates and many of the adults in my life. I lived in fear, but never thought to question or even to rebel. It had been going on for so long that I had accepted it as my due. It was my reality. What was unreal was the idea that people were coming to a birthday party for me. What it was…was…well…laughable, if it wasn’t so terribly frightening.
I had started school like many children do, with the bubbling excitement of being a big kid. The excitement lasted but one day. However, the fear, embarrassment and guilt that was generated on that day was still with me everyday, including today, my 10th birthday. I thought back to that first day of school. I remembered playing with the other kids and the little girl with gold ringlets who had wrinkled up her little pug nose and said, “You look like a witch”. These five words of childish observation changed the course of my life. For indeed, the child who had called me a witch had called down a curse.
Why these words had so much power was still a mystery. Why didn’t I scream back, “it isn’t true” or give the little ringlet girl some of her own treatment? Instead, I received these words as if they had come from on high. I was ugly. I was less than. I then began to act as if I was indeed ugly and less than. I withdrew from the other children and became shy with adults. My reserve became so exacting that I made myself a target. It did not help that I was also neglected at home. It did not help that I was sent to school dirty and unkempt. It did not help that I never had parent signed papers or money for workbooks and lunch. So, now, the knowledge that I was being given a surprise birthday party, terrified rather than delighted.
My friend was the the teenage daughter of one of my father’s drinking buddies. For some reason, that I didn’t question, she was kind and tolerant of my following her around like a little puppy. Today, the teenager had been instructed to keep me away from home for a few hours. “I don’t want to go”, I whispered. “Don’t be silly”, my friend said in a voice that I recognized. I knew by her tone that she was looking at me differently. I was very sensitive to tones of voice and expressions. I knew that she was wondering,” What little girl wouldn’t want a birthday party?” and I instinctively knew that further protests on my part would result in shunning. My throat tightened and I simply nodded yes when my friend asked if I was just kidding. I was trapped.
The four blocks to home were an agony of possible scenarios and plans. Although, I did not look forward to spending time with my classmates and their hostile looks and hurtful comments; this wasn’t my biggest fear. My biggest fear was exposure. My mom didn’t know and she couldn’t know who I really was. She didn’t know I was teased, hit, pinched, kicked and ostracized on a daily basis. She didn’t know people hated me. My mother didn’t look at me like other people did and I needed it to stay that way. If mom looked at me like they did……my throat tightened again.
I saw my backyard from a distance. It was full. Full of people who hated me. Full of people I feared. I had only moments to decide how to respond. As my mother turned and saw me, I somehow managed a look that must have passed for surprise. Mom smiled and lead me next to a decorated table. In the center of the table sat a Barbie doll dressed in a cake ball gown. It was beautiful and had obviously taken loving hours to make. I never took my eyes off of the ruffled pink masterpiece as the rendition of Happy Birthday was sung by the haters and their mothers. With the song’s last strands coming to its uncomfortable end, Mom whispered in my ear, ” Thank everyone for coming.” Not knowing what else to do, I looked up and with a big fake smile plastered on my face, I thanked everyone. My eyes widened in surprise, as the whole yard full of big fake smiles looked back at me. I wasn’t the only one who had a need to make this birthday party appear normal. I needed my mother to go on believing I was a normal child with friends. The children at the party needed their mothers to remain ignorant as well. They needed their mothers to believe that they were not the kind of children who would take joy in torturing another child. I faced the rest of the party without fear and with the knowledge that I was safe from exposure this day. Everyone had a role to play; devoted mother, nice friends and normal daughter.