Prairie Farm French Vanilla Ice Cream. A bowl of cherries. Strawberry shortcake…Red Baron Frozen Pizza. A pitcher of Kool Aid. Homemade potato salad, oven cooked barbecue ribs. These all all foods that I associate with three birthdays.
Mom- July 27
Afrocity- August 2nd
Grandmother- August 6th.
Three Leo lionesses all laughing it up for a summer week of food stamp spending and fun. The everyday things that would seem mundane to most were the very source of our pleasure. Watching the Price Is Right, Family Feud, or MatchGame. Grandma would always root for the African American contestants. I would find a nice crisp sundress to wear for the day- my day. August 2nd always hot. Rarely has it ever rained on my day. Even if it did would it have mattered? This was a child’s love affair with her mother and grandmother. Once three lionesses. Now only one remains.
On this day, I should be happy. I am forty-one years old. I am alive, successful and independent of government money.
No foodstamp bought birthday cake for me. I am a proud conservative. An escapee of the “Great Society”.
This lioness is not in need of Obamacare or liberal platitudes. Look everyone! I made it all on my own.
Mother would be proud. At forty-one I am not on government assistance. Educated, clothed and housed rather nicely. Cats have their own bed. Stainless steel kitchen with double sink. Washer/dryer- not the stackable kind either.
But why are the memory police still chasing me down?
To the extent that I allow myself to be happy, I am also equally resigned and well stuck… College, graduate school, good job, nice apartment…All gifts from God. However, non of these things have led magically to the happiness that my mother promised me. By giving me her blessing to pursue the government assistance free “American Dream”, I was the one left carrying the burden.
I was the one strapped with the historical ambitions of two African American women who never realized their dreams. One a divorced maid, mother of eight. The other a welfare mother of a so called young gifted and black daughter would would grow up to scoff at all of her liberal teachings.
The lioness den. Imperfect in its protection, little did the two women know that it is what saved me from being another black victim and made me a conservative.
Grandmother paid for my private schooling until her hands could no longer scrub suburban Chicago Jewish floors. Mother spent hours teaching me huge vocabulary words like “artificial” and “articulate”.
You may laugh, but she only had a high school education. For mother those were huge words. Between watching game shows, she would sit on the floor next to me:
“See Jane run…Go Jane go…See Jane eat the cake… Oh my do you know what tomorrow is?”
I shook my head.
“It will be your birthday”
Afrocity was approaching six years of age on August 2, 1975.
Birthdays to me at the time were a concept not rooted in anything that I could calculate. I knew there was cake and balloons. I knew that people had to like you on that day. Did I know when the day actually was?
Mother could have said absolutely nothing and August 2nd, 1975 would have been like any other day of cartoons and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to me.
“Your birthday is August 2nd. This will always be a special day for you to celebrate being born. “
“Like that big party and Snoopy cake we had at Grandma’s place?” I asked while recalling myself, a cake and a bunch of family members and food.
Mother nodded, ” Yes, that was your fourth birthday party. Now you will be six.”
“What happened to five?” There was no cake in a long time I thought. 1…2…3…4…
Mother formed her most child friendly lie, ” God does not allow you to have a party every year…Only on the even numbers.
“What’s an even number?”
“2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20…”
I nodded, “Seven is next year…so no cake?”
“No,” she answered. ” No parties during odd years. God wants you to rest some years. People get tired of coming to someone’s birthday party every year, giving you gifts. Moms can’t handle all of those kids every year. “
The answer was accepted. No one could make stupid logic sound more realistic than my mother. However unrealistic this answer was, this was a cake year and she owed me a party. Party first. Philosophize later. “So there is going to be a party for me tomorrow?”
“Yes, and cake and pineapple sherbert, balloons, pizza…”
“John’s sausage pizza?”
“Yes sausage pizza and lemonade and-“
Sausage pizza. I liked John’s frozen sausage pizza but something was not right. “So at eight I get another party?”
“Yes and ten and twelve”
Mother had either made a serious miscalculation or God lied to her. ” You are wrong because God let me have a birthday party when I was one, you showed me the picture.”
Mamma lioness lied. Scores of reasons could be given for the absence of parties and she knew it. She was most likely depressed in 1974 or bereft of funding but would not admit it. ” Your first birthday is different because it is your first one. “
Young Afrocity still ever so skeptical, “Did I have one at two or three?”
Mother sighed “No, we skipped two because you had a party at one and three was odd so we let you have a party at four and now six…You get to make a wish too”
Wishes??? ” Can I make three wishes for the birthdays I missed?”
Mother was tiring of me, “Yes, but make the ones you missed now and save the birthday one for tomorrow.”
“So I get three wishes just like in the story books?”
“Yes three wishes.”
For several moments, I confess that I wanted mostly selfish things. A new pet, some clothes, a ventriloquist dummy like Lester. But it occurred to me that mother and I together needed much more. ” I wish I had a father like most white kids. I wish you had a job like most white people…and I wish you would smile more and not be so angry when you need more money when we run out of food because the check has not come…I do not like that.”
The moment was heavy, I looked down at the red linoleum floor, tracing the black designs with my finger. But there was food today because it was August 1st and the check comes on the first. I knew that because she told me. My birthday was a lucky day. Party tomorrow and now that the disestablished logic of odd and even birthday celebrations were firmly planted in my head. I again just wanted to be clear on the whole birthday cake/party allotment.
“Party tomorrow? Six is an even year?”
Mother was stumped. She was throatless.
I took the Dick and Jane reader from her hands. I opened it to a page where Dick, Sally and Jane are eating cupcakes at a picnic. Maybe it was Jane’s birthday too. Spot steals one of the cupcakes.
“BAD SPOT! He messed up Jane’s party. “
Perhaps Jane had her party when she was seven. That is why God let Spot steal the cupcakes. I don’t want to get God mad at me.
And I did not.
I had a birthday party at 8,10,12, 14, 16, 18, 20, and so on. Just like mother taught me. Other sinners followed the conventional wisdom of having a party every year. How un-green. All of those invitations wasting paper. Helium shortages. Barbarians!
Let me add that the memory police do not assault me with the birthday party years. I can hardly remember those. The commonplace odd years were of great significance and the years that linger now.
Year seven: Mom coming in the bedroom and waking me up after I waited for her to come home all day. She placed a Marshall Field’s dark green shopping bag on my chest filled with Fisher Price toys. Yes it was 8:00 PM but she remembered me.
Year nine: A card filled with quarters and silver dollars and a movie downtown with cheeseburgers at McDonald’s afterward.
Year eleven: Naturally a sad summer in the homeless shelter but mother still took me to Walgreen’s soda shop for a root beer float. This simple act of dining in public and paying for my meal without foodstamps or vouchers or soup kitchens made me feel human and normal. I needed that. I needed to forget that we were homeless. Mother gave me that for my birthday.
Year Forty-one: I am alone. It is a odd year numerically and emotionally. The lone lioness is home alone with the memory police, ice cream, Kool Aid, and sadness.
Thank you God for another year.
Thank you mother and granny for the memories and life.
Autographed Letter Signed,
(The Leo Lion Queen)