Birthdays

My earliest memory is when I was four. It’s my birthday. I’m fat and happy, wearing a birthday hat. It’s just me and ma and a cake with candles. I see the scene as on a photograph, me clapping my hands, ma carrying the cake with the four lighted candles. But then, everything slows down. Ma’s smile freezes and a shadow clouds her brow. Her eyes become glass, like the dolls in my room. I know instantly that daddy is here. It’s just a memory but I feel I can smell the sweat and booze coming off his unwashed body before I even see him. He takes in the scene. He’s wearing rumpled pants and a stained undershirt (why stained? Mother was always meticulous with our clothes). His hair is tousled, his eyes unsteady.

A cigarette is dangling from his lips. It’s not lit. He looks dizzy. He’s holding on to the walls and walking tentatively. You can tell he’s trying to make sense of what he’s seeing. He seems to feel he’s walked into something unusual, foreign. Ma is still holding the cake. The song has died on her lips, the candles are melting. Pa approaches her with forced bonhomie, puts one hand around her waist to steady himself as he plunges his head toward the cake. I let out a protest. He lights his dead cigarette to one of the candles and inhales. The tip glows red, ma stiffens. He lets out the smoke over the cake. The flames flicker and dim, obscured by the smoke. I still hold out hope.

My second memory involves my brother. It’s his birthday but there is no cake. Ma, him and me are walking quickly outside in the rain. Me and Peter are holding onto a suitcase. Peter’s is stuffed with crayons and his teddy bear. I have brought sensible things. A change of clothes and my books. They are cheap suitcases, made out of vinyl. Mine is a dirty yellow, medium size. Peter’s is kid size and small. He is sniffling, unhappy. We are cold and wet and not protected from the rain. A car stops. Ma looks and ushers us in. It’s Mr. Smith, the neighbour, with tight lips. He says, “Where to?” and she says “The train station.” No other words are exchanged. We are out of the rain and relax minimally.

At the train station, ma starts opening her purse. Mr. Smith puts a hand over hers and she looks at him fearfully. His other hand is in his pocket. I read shame in his eyes but no malice. He hands her a few dollars. “That’s all I have. Go!” He waves off our thanks. The rain has stopped. It’s just a drizzle. Ma looks at the time and whips us both to the washroom where she proceeds to dry us with paper. She combs Peter’s hair and smiles at me. It’s a genuine smile. We walk out, flanking ma, as she strides confidently to the counter. “One adult, two children. To Madison.” It feels like we’re going to the movies and she just bought tickets. Peter is looking around at the people. He’s fascinated by a baby in a stroller. He points and says “Baby,” and looks up at ma who is busy, then at me. I smile and he’s happy. He’s an “easy baby”, as opposed to me who was a “contrary baby.”

We have a little time to kill. That’s what ma says. “To kill.” I tell her, in hushed tones “Mr. Smith’s money? And mimic blowing out candles. She squeezes my hand. There is a diner at the station, and she walks over with us in tow. “Miss? Our train is at 1:00. Will we have time to grab something to eat? It’s his birthday. We’re off for an adventure!” The waitress is pretty, with big blond curls. She has a big smile, big enough for the three of us. She asks how old the young one is today and takes our order. Peter is babbling happily and shrieks in delight when the waitress brings a slice of chocolate cake with three lit candles. Patrons join in to sing happy birthday. I say Peter loudly to fill in the blank at “… dear Peter” and he blows them out in one big breath, with our help. Everybody claps. We’re indeed off to a great adventure.

The story goes that ma did not want my father to find us, so she did not dare go to her parents or sister. We showed up at a stranger’s doorstep and she took us in. She wasn’t really a stranger. She was Maggie, and she and ma “went a long way back.” She did not know we were coming but she acts as though she’s thrilled to see us. Ma volunteers that it’s Peter’s birthday and that we were hoping to spend the birthday month with her. She answers, “Too bad you chose a short month!” and I know everything will be fine. She introduces me next “This is my eldest, my pride and joy, Mary Beth.” I curtsy shily. She curtsies back. “Well, Mary Beth, will you help me get the room ready for you? Charlene, be a darling and put the kettle to boil? Peter? I see you’ve found the cat. Be good now.” And off we go in a whirlwind of activity. Pretty soon, it feels like home. The three of us will take her bedroom (“Oh yes, you will!”) so she moves a trunk with her clothes into a tiny room next to the kitchen. We unfold a bed (tada!) and I am suddenly envious of her. She will have her privacy. I am seven now, so I know to keep quiet and do as I am told.

Maggie reads me like an open book. “I work during the day. You are allowed to come here and close the door if you want a bit of time to yourself.” I hug her, which I never, ever do. She is thin and does not smell like ma. She has an earthy smell, that I can’t place. She caresses my hair and says “Blond like me. Do you like curls?” I am overcome with shyness again and nod yes. Ma has set up the table, with two cups and two glasses. Steam is coming out of the teapot. Maggie says, “I have tapioca pudding I made just last night. How is that with a glass of milk, kids?” “Thank you, ma’am,” we answer. Peter is walking towards the table, grinning and holding the cat so that his paws are brushing the ground. Tommy has a white chest and white paws on a striped body. He looks like a tiger. “Tommy’s not allowed at the table. I’ll pour a little milk for him in his bowl.” And she does.

Ma’s birthday is the next memory. Until we moved in with Maggie, I never knew Ma had a birthday. We’ve moved out now, as agreed after the birthday month was over, but we visit Maggie all the time. We are renting rooms in widow Carmichael’s big house. Maggie throws a garden party for ma. It’s August, of course, because that’s when she was born a long time ago. There are a few men friends, but they’re nothing like pa. I help out with the refreshments and Peter endears himself to everybody. I don’t miss pa. Peter Robinson chats me up. He asks an awful lot of questions about ma and then goes to talk to her and asks an awful lot of questions about Peter and me. I like him a lot and ma does too. I help Maggie light so many candles that it looks like the cake is on fire. We walk out with it. I am holding the cake and Maggie has her hands on my shoulders. Ma is smiling and Mr Peter is by her side.

The final birthday memory is after my parent’s divorce. Little Peter turned seven. He has been entrusted with the camera. Ma, Big Peter and me are surrounded by a bunch of Peter’s classmates. He himself is not in the picture. He wants all of us to pretend we are blowing out the candles. He says that way nobody knows who we are celebrating. He did not want to be photographed.

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