Some birthday parties have such an impact on you that you remember them for the rest of your life. The one I will never forget took place in 1949.
The Illinois Central Railroad cut a wide swath through our small town dividing it into two sections. Most of the town was on one side of the tracks. Anita lived on the other side of the tracks. She was about to turn ten that year and she wanted a birthday party. She had written out invitations on scraps of yellow Goldenrod tablet paper and handed these out to some of our classmates.
"Joyce Ann,...hold still!" Mother said as she fussed with my banana curls. She always used both my first and second name whenever I frustrated her and tried her patience. I was shifting from one foot to the other that day and showing other signs of being fidgety. I had not wanted to go to Anita's party in the first place, but Mother insisted. She may have sensed that it would be important for me to be there.
With Anita's gift tucked under one arm and my coat neatly buttoned down the front, I walked out the door of my house to go to the party. I left behind the clean smell of freshly ironed clothes that had been allowed to dry all day the day before on our clothesline in the backyard. I knew Mother would steal a few moments away from her ironing to peek out the front window so that she could watch my shiny brown banana curls bob up and down with each step I took. She was in her glory whenever she could send me out the door with spirited banana curls cascading down my back.
It was damp and cold outside. I pulled the collar of my coat up around my neck to keep warm. A gust of wind picked up some leaves left over from autumn and whirled them around before releasing them back to their home on the moist sidewalk. It was gloomy like a gray Sunday afternoon in February when there is nothing to do and no one to play with. The trees looked wicked without their leaves. Barely yielding to the force of the wind, their rigid branches reminded me of a witch's gnarled fingers. They were without grace unlike when they are full of leaves and sway back and forth in the wind as if dancing with each other.
I walked to Main Street, which was only a block away from my home, and turned left toward the post office. A few blocks later I crossed Main and walked to the tracks which were right across from Main. I stood there in front of the tracks for a while half paralyzed. They frightened me. Streamliners could appear out of nowhere and streak through town at lightning speed. Not only that but I had seen too many movies at the Darb Theatre in which someone got their foot caught in between the tracks with a train coming toward them. I hesitated a long time at the tracks looking to the right and then to the left more than once before crossing.
Anita's house faced the tracks on the other side. She could sit on her front porch and I was certain she could feel the rush of air the Streamliners caused as they streaked by. I walked up the steps of her house and knocked on the door. The door opened wide and Anita appeared. Her face glowed. Her black eyes expressed all the excitement that had been building up in her as she waited for her birthday party to begin. The barrette in her hair was doing its very best to hold back a bunch of her thick black hair and keep it from falling in her face. She was wearing a brown plaid cotton dress that tied in the back. It was too small for her and one of the puffed sleeves had torn away from the bodice of the dress in front.
"You're the FIRST one!" Anita gushed with delight. "Come on in!." She stood on her tiptoes stretching to look beyond me to see if any others were coming down the street.
I walked past Anita and into the dark living room. It was lit by one small lamp on a dusty end table. Someone had written something in the dust. The room smelled odd. It reminded me of the way my grandparents' basement smelled after Grandpa had been down there smoking one of his cigars. An accumulation of newspapers and magazines were scattered around on the floor and furniture. Some apple cores, shriveled and brown, had fallen to the corners of the sofa. I did not notice Anita's little sister Betty and her brother Tommy until one of them ran to me and shouted, "Boo!" causing me to jump and then laugh.
"Here's your birthday gift, Anita." I said as I handed it to her. I had gotten her some Esther Williams paper dolls and a puzzle. "Oh, thank you." She chirped. She laid the gift down on the sofa. Then she grabbed my hand and said "Come and see my cake. I made it all by myself. It's CHOCOLATE!"
"You made it yourself?" I said in amazement. I had never tried to make a cake all by myself. I was impressed.
Anita led me into the kitchen which was as dark as the living room. The only light came from the window over the sink. There sitting on the kitchen table among some dirty dishes was Anita's birthday cake in an oblong pan. I stared at it for a long time wondering what I could say. Finally I said, "It's real nice." Anita stroked the side of the pan and replied softly, "Yes, and I made it all by myself."
But it wasn't nice. It wasn't a nice cake at all. It was burnt and sunken in the middle. It had no frosting. It had no candles. It was a sad cake. I started to think about the summer before and the cake Mother had made for me. She had written "Happy Birthday, Joyce" across the top. I had a big party. It was held outside in the vacant lot between our house and the Clarks. There were folding tables and chairs and colorful streamers and balloons. My friends and I played games and ran around and laughed a lot.
Anita reached over and took my hand again, "Let's go see if anyone is coming yet." We hurried to the front door and stepped out onto the porch. Anita's little brother ran out there with us and started to make faces at me. "Tommy, stop that and go inside." Anita insisted sternly. But instead he let out a loud "hoot" and leaped onto the ground from the top step and ran around to the back of the house. "Boys!" Anita said shaking her head in disgust.
We looked up and down her street, but there was no sign of anyone at all. With a puzzled look on her face she said, "I wonder where the others are."
"I know...let's go back inside and you can open the gift I got for you." I said. "Maybe we can play a game while we wait for everyone."
Anita liked the paper dolls I had gotten her. It wasn't long before we had everything cut out and had begun to play with the dolls. We had been playing for about 20 minutes when her dad shuffled into the living room from a bedroom in the back. He had been sleeping. His hair was messed up and his whiskers were showing. He needed to shave. He worked the night shift at a plant in a nearby town. "That is why he is sleeping in the middle of the day." Anita explained. He said something to us in a husky voice before turning and walking into the kitchen for a drink of water. Then he went back to bed. After that Anita talked softly to me and told her sister and brother to be quiet too.
I had no idea what had happened to Anita's mother. I didn't know if she had died or if she had disappeared or if she lived in another town. I was afraid to ask Anita about her mother. All I knew was that Anita and her sister and brother lived with their dad. He was the one who took care of them.
An hour had passed and Anita and I were growing tired of the paper dolls. Still no one else had arrived yet. I was the only one. Finally Anita jumped up and said to me "Let's get our coats and go outside." She had an idea. We would go up and down the street knocking on doors inviting any children inside to come to her party. So that is what we did. We knocked on doors and invited other children to come. But no one could come. So we gave up and went back to her house and sat on the steps for a while.
"I don't understand." Anita turned to me and said.
"You don't understand what?" I replied.
"Where is everyone? Why didn't anyone else come to my party? I don't understand."
"Oh, gee." I said as I struggled to find the words. "You know what. I bet they forgot where you live. Or....maybe some of them are sick. Don't you think?"
She sighed. "Maybe." Then she stood up. "I guess we should go ahead and eat my birthday cake now." We went inside.
Anita had no candles to put on her cake. Her little sister and I went ahead and sang "happy birthday" to her anyway while her little brother made faces at all of us. As I watched Anita work the pieces of cake out of the pan with a table knife, I decided that her cake was the saddest looking birthday cake in the whole wide world. She handed each of us some to eat. We ate in silence. We just stood there around the kitchen table and ate in silence. When I was finished, I told Anita that I needed to leave and go home. By that time I was missing home a lot.
As I was about to walk down the front steps, I wished Anita a happy birthday again and told her that her cake tasted good...even though it hadn't. At the bottom of the steps I turned around and waved goodbye, but she had already gone back into the house.
It was almost dusk. I crossed over the railroad tracks without giving any thought to Streamliners or feet getting stuck in the tracks. The trees looked even more wicked than they had before. The damp air of the day eventually took its toll on my banana curls that Mother had carefully formed. They had all fallen out. The wind snatched a lock of my limp hair and pulled it around and over my eyes. I brushed it away.
"Step on a crack and you break your mother's back." I heard myself saying out loud as I maneuvered around the cracks in the sidewalk. "That's just a saying." I said to myself. "That's just a stupid saying." The closer I got to my house, the faster I walked. Then when I turned down my street I began to run. I ran as fast as I could. I forgot all about cracks in the sidewalk.
My house, small and modest, came into view. When I got there I leaped onto the concrete stoop and opened the front door. I took a deep breath filling my lungs with the clean smell of freshly ironed clothes. "Mother?" I called to her. "I'm in the kitchen dear." She answered. Her voice warmed me like nothing else possibly could at that moment. I ran into the kitchen to find her washing some dishes. She turned around and wiped her hands on the flowered apron she was wearing. "Did you have a good time at Anita's party?" She asked.
I went to her. I wrapped my arms around her.
What inspired me to write this story is the memory I have of attending a school friend's birthday party when I was a young girl. My friend did live on the other side of the tracks in town. She planned her own birthday party. She baked her own birthday cake. It was sunken in the middle and it had no frosting and no candles. I was the only one who attended her birthday party although she had invited others. She and I did go up and down her street looking for other children to invite to her party. But no one else could come. She and her sister and brother lived with their father who took care of them. To this day I do not know what had happened to my school friend's mother and why she was not there.