Birthday Party, 1939

Magnificent ceiling by Dale Chihuly at Maker’s Mark Distillery, Kentucky

When she was 12, or maybe 13 years old, my mother persuaded her immigrant mother to organize an American-style birthday party.  She played stickball with the neighborhood boys, so the only girls she knew were from her Brooklyn classroom. These girls were ok: they would talk to her sometimes even though — having learned English from the nuns — she didn’t know the American idioms and still marveled over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

My mother knew the girls had birthday parties; she might even have been invited to one herself. And from reading American magazines and Il Progresso’s features on being American, she probably knew about cake, candles and that special song.  She had been an almost-American since first grade; school had taught her far more than reading and numbers.

So, she asked the girls to come to her party.  And she asked her mother to prepare — or buy — American food: whatever would have been festive and very inexpensive in 1938.  Absolutely nothing Italian.  Moreover, a party needed a few decorations; perhaps she fashioned streamers from old newspapers or popped blossoms into empty bottles.

The party hour arrived.  Dressed in her church best, my mother waited near the front door.  As she waited, she fussed with the decorations, the plates and the food.  I don’t know if the streamers and the blooms wilted as she waited.  But no one came.  I don’t know if my mom was hurt or angry.  But no one came.  I don’t know if she wondered whether the girls had misunderstood the invitation or whether they had all agreed to do something else that day.  Eventually, though, she thanked her mother and tidied the already-clean room. And then she helped her mother to serve the American food to her younger brothers and sister for dinner.

I think Mom told me this story when I was 12 or maybe 13.  That would make sense: I was struggling in those days with wobbly friendships and the sense of not belonging.  Perhaps Mom wanted me to see that everyone feels abandoned sometimes and that we can nevertheless — or consequently? — grow up to become strong, confident, capable, and accomplished women.  Perhaps Mom wanted me to see that even though she had had no friends growing up and, really, had no friends as an adult, one could be loving and not too bitter.  Perhaps she wanted this story to assure me that, yes, things will get better.

I learned those lessons.

But only much later did I wonder: perhaps this story is why my mother never forgave those pre-teen friends of mine who she thought had abandoned me.

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