A Birthday Party
| "My classmates are going to take me and another woman in my class out and give us a birthday party on the 25th. It will be the first time anyone has done anything for my birthday in years." There was a wistful tone to my friend's voice as she said the last sentence. It made me think. When had I last celebrated a birthday?
Do I count the cake that my client Carol brings me every year as a celebration of my birthday? Did she even bring one last year when she came in April rather than February? She began in 1984. Learning that she had made her appointment on my birthday, she toted a cake all the way from Boston to Philadelphia in a bag. On arrival she slipped into the ladies' room and arranged the candles and then marched down the hall to my office.
I guess that could qualify as a celebration of sorts, but it is the rare celebrant who must stop and prepare a tax return in the middle of the fete and then hustle the partygoers out so he may receive other clients.
My birthday is not for over six months, but once a thought enters my subconscious it does not leave until I drag it over the mountains, across the rivers, and through the swamps of my mind. A black and white photograph keeps coming back to me. Puerta la Cruz, Venezuela, 1951, an eighth birthday party, a little boy with a spoon in his mouth. The photo was in this house somewhere.
I found it today. It was in a scrapbook where it should have been. This was none of my doing. My wife was always the official keeper of the seals, spices and scrapbooks. There was a second picture of him blowing out the candles, but in that one it is hard to judge his emotions. I can say he looked better in profile than in full face with a spoon stuck in his mouth.
I don't remember if he was given the cowboy shirt for his birthday. He wasn't big on cowboys, but most of his friends at his party were Texans. That's John Keating to his left, his best friend and playmate. I cropped the boy on his right from the photo. His name has gone from memory and he was better looking than this silly boy with the spoon in his mouth.
Eight compadres attended, including his sister and two other girls. The girls sat around the other end of the table. I know the seating arrangement from the candle photo and the number of partygoers from another picture taken outside. I don't remember if they brought him gifts. I don't know why he is smiling. Was it because someone said something funny or because the ice cream tasted so good?
I do remember that he had fourteen Bolivars in his pocket. Who gave them to him I do not know. What I do know is that he lost them playing outside on the lawn and never found them. No one yelled at him, but I am sure he was upset. He had reason. Did he know then that this would be his last birthday party?
I am glad the photographer caught him smiling. The boy could not know the load of bricks life was to drop on him. It was that same rain of bricks all of us have to dodge. I wonder if he would still be grinning and looking silly. Let's not tell him. Let's not tell his sister that she will never have a birthday party either.
Do tell them that every year they would receive birthday cards, and that as they grew older they would be expected to send cards too. And there would be a cake, at first from bakeries and later from the frozen food department of the supermarket. The song would be sung and candles would be extinguished, but friends and celebrants like John Keating had long gone home to Texas.
Gifts ceased to be given. It was just as well. Even though he was big enough to know better than to lose his presents, Bolivars would have been useless to a growing boy in suburban Philadelphia.
There are no photographs of the restrained celebrations as he moved onward and upward from age eight. I doubt that he again made such a face. I said I did not know why he is smiling in the photo, but looking closely, I know that smile. He is savoring the good time he is having and his friends about him.
So it has been fifty years! Time to do it again. Order the cake and ice cream! The next party is coming, I am sure! I am going to sit in front of the mirror and practice that spoon-in- my-mouth smile.
Valatie NY, July 31, 2001