“As traumatized children we always dreamed that someone would come and save us. We never dreamed that it would, in fact, be ourselves, as adults.”Alice Little
I can only remember celebrating one birthday, growing up. It was my 3rd birthday, back in the summer of ‘81. Mom woke us up early, after dad had gone to work. They were not getting along too well, in those days, but they did their best not to let it show. Dad worked all day, every day, morning till night, with the exception of Sunday, when he was home by 6pm. Today was a Sunday, so “there’s no time to lose”, she said with a look of excitement in her eyes.
My sister and I crawled out of bed and followed our mom downstairs. I remember feeling confused, but in complete awe, of the pretty pink and blue streamers we found decorating the dining room area of our home. There was a white cake on the table with my name on it, next to the most beautiful purple and gold unicorn head that I have ever seen! There were party hats and favors, snack bowls and kool-aid. When we turned around, we saw a homemade clown face, cut out and pieced together from construction paper, taped to the wall behind our front door.
“What’s THAT?”, we asked, excited by our suspicion that it was some sort of game.
“THAT,” our mom said, hiding her hands behind her back, with the proudest of smiles upon her face, “is a game. Kind of like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”, except YOU get to pin the NOSE on the Clown!”. She now revealed the items she’d been hiding in her hands – a blindfold and a big, red circle cut from construction paper. Scotch tape had been applied to the back, and we immediately recognized it as a nose to be applied to the face of the clown that was hanging on the wall.
We began to laugh and jump up and down excitedly, taking the items from her hands. My sister tied the blindfold around my eyes, placed her hands on my shoulders, and began to spin me around. I staggered and stumbled, then made my best attempt to locate the clown face and apply his nose. As I pulled the blindfold from my face, I caught a glimpse of my sister moving the red circle from the wall and placing it onto the center of clown’s face. “You did it!”, she cried out, jumping up and down and clapping.
Mom told us to “go get ready” because everyone would be here soon. I had no idea who “everyone” was, but I was super excited to be celebrating my birthday! We ran upstairs to change clothes and my sister let me try on her prettiest dress. It was silky soft and white with little pink and green flowers (or watermelons?) all over it. The skirt was full and would fly out and swoosh around my legs when I’d spin around like a ballerina. I danced in front of mom’s big round makeup mirror, admiring this dress, despite the fact that it was still too big on me. I plopped down on the floor with the telephone from off of mom’s dresser. I picked up the receiver and dialed “0”. When the operator answered, I told her that it was my birthday. She asked how old I was and I told her that “I’m THREE now!”, watching my reflection in the mirror as I held up three fingers, as if she could see. I told her about the party, the clown game, and my purple unicorn cake. I told her about the dress my sister let me wear and how everybody is coming to play and that she should come too. She said she was sorry she had to miss it, but that she had to work all day. She then asked me if there was someone I would like to call to tell about my birthday, but I couldn’t think of anyone. Just then I heard the doorbell ring so I told her I had to go. I hung up the phone and ran downstairs to see who had arrived.
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. I remember that it was hot. I had to ditch my sister’s dress. I remember a lot of kids – some I knew, some we were meeting for the first time. I remember my mom’s friends and how they sang to me and cheered as I tried to blow out the candles – but the things kept sparking and relighting, as mom laughed and finally told me that it was a joke. The cake was a delicious marble of chocolate and vanilla that my mom had made herself, and the icing tasted like marshmallow! The clown game was fun and everybody took a turn.
My mom’s friend, Andy, bought me a ginormous purple stuffed animal snake and all the kids climbed on it as we “rode” it like a flying dragon outside and onto the sidewalk. Up, down, and all around the block we rode, and it was so much fun!
When my mom called out to us, we returned home and were told to help clean up. Dad would be coming home soon and she didn’t want him to know about the party. We bagged up all of the streamers, tore down the clown from off the wall, and emptied everyone’s plates into the trash. My sister and I went to take a bath while mom & her friends hung out in our parents bedroom, just across the hall. We heard them laughing, and could smell their beer and cigarette smoke. My sister bathed much faster than I and was already in her jammies and downstairs waiting when dad walked through the door.
I remember walking slowly down the stairs, holding an elastic hair tie with the image of a brown haired doll, wearing a pretty blue dress. It was a gift from my mom’s friend, Gina. As I looked over the banister, I saw my sister sitting on our Dad’s lap. He looked sad, or mad… or perhaps maybe both? My sister was very quiet.
“Where’s your mother?”, he asked.
“Upstairs, with Andy and Gina.”, I answered. I tried to show him my hair tie, but he wasn’t interested. He set my sister down and stood up, heading for the stairs. I started to run after him, but my sister stopped me, placing a finger over her lips. “Daddy’s mad.”, she said. “They shouldn’t be up there.”
I really didn’t understand at the time, but apparently my sister knew, that Andy had a crush on our mom and was trying to be her boyfriend. Gina was gay and, even though I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, dad had zero tolerance for this. It didn’t change the fact that I liked Gina a lot and I knew she was my mom’s good friend.
We stood at the bottom of the stairs as Dad interrupted the party going on upstairs. We heard arguing and the shuffling of feet. Mom sounded upset. Andy and Gina exited the room, walked down the stairs, and said goodbye to us both. They left the house as my sister and I ventured up the steps. We could hear our parents arguing, as we peeked inside the door. Dad yelled at us to go to our room and, as we ran and jumped up on our bed, he closed the door and locked us in.
As the arguing continued, I began to cry. It escalated to screaming and I heard the slam of a door followed by a loud slap. Mom had gone into the bathroom, but dad had followed. I was prying on our bedroom door, trying to unlatch the lock. Mom was crying, dad was yelling and, as the lock released and the door cracked open, I saw our dad dragging our mom out of the bathroom and hurling her body down the flight of stairs. I stood there stunned for a moment, almost paralyzed with fear. But then, instead of running out there to help my mom, who I could see crumpled up on the floor at the base of the stairs, I turned and ran to our bedroom window. I climbed out onto the roof and started screaming as loud as I could, begging for someone to help – anyone to come and save my mom!
I contemplated jumping off of the roof or trying to climb down the railing and onto the porch below, but my sister was telling me not to be stupid. She grabbed my hand and pulled me back inside the house. I went back to our bedroom door and saw my mom slowly climbing back up the stairs. I ran to her, refusing to look at my dad as he stood in that hallway, completely silent. She walked me back into our bedroom and laid down on the bed, holding me as I cried. My sister climbed up and laid down too, holding our mom. Then Dad came in and laid down, holding my sister. All of us, right there, in the same bed. Our parents continued to bicker back and forth and so I started to scream. The room fell silent as mom held onto me, stroking my hair. I sucked my thumb and, eventually, fell asleep.
The next morning when we woke, dad had already left for work. Mom didn’t look so good, but she smiled at us anyway. She said we were going to visit Aunt Gale, so we got ourselves dressed and jumped in the car. We weren’t at Aunt Gale’s for very long before she was packing us up in the car again… but, this time, we wound up at the hospital. Turns out, mom’s arm was badly broken from the altercation with dad last night. The police were called and the adults were called in, one by one, “to give a statement”.
My sister was convinced that our parents were getting a divorce. My cousin said that our dad was probably going to jail. I was hungry and trying to find a few quarters on the floor with which I could buy a candy bar.
I tried to stay with my mom after they had immobilized her arm, but the police officers wouldn’t let me. They said they needed to “speak with her in private”. My Uncle had now arrived and he took me out to the waiting room. I sat in a corner, trying not to cry, scared that I was never going to see my mom again. That’s when dad walked through the door.
The entire room fell silent. No one spoke and no one smiled. They just stared at him or stood up and walked away. I jumped up and ran to him, climbing up his big body and hugging him like a teddy bear. He held me tight and whispered in my ear, “I’m so sorry, kiddo. Do you hate me?”, at which point I saw his tears. Never have I ever seen my dad cry before this very moment, and my heart ached terribly for him. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember wiping his eyes and kissing his cheek, wishing that my own forgiveness could somehow be enough to fix this. We sat together, in the corner of that waiting room, away from all the rest of our family, and shared a cup of hot chocolate from the hospital’s vending machine.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, our parents sought counsel through their church. They credited the elders and their god for helping them to save their marriage – and themselves.
After that, we no longer celebrated birthdays or holidays in our house. Our parents chose to become serious followers of their faith, raising us under the influence of a very strict religious organization that preached all glory and honor were to be bestowed upon God, and never upon mere humans.
As a child, it set me apart. It alienated me from a lot of friends in our neighborhood and especially at school. I upheld my family’s religious standards, even fought heatedly, at times, to defend them – but, underneath it all, I really just couldn’t understand.
If humans really are God’s most prized creation, made in His image, how could the celebration of them or their lives detract any beauty, or glory, or honor away from Him, as the grand creator and giver of this great gift of Life?
I questioned this explanation on many occasions and was told that Jesus Christ, himself, never celebrated his birthday… or, if he did, it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. According to my parents and the elders in our congregation, the only two birthday celebrations mentioned in the bible were that of the Egyptian Pharaoh who ordered the hanging death of his baker, and that of King Herod, where he ordered the killing of John the Baptist and had the man’s head delivered to him on a platter. In the reasoning of my parents and that of their church, this indicated that “bad things” were associated with birthday parties and, therefore, we wanted nothing to do with them. As a child, I just couldn’t understand… but, then again, “bad things” happened at my birthday party too, so perhaps they were right?