“Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.”
“If it’s not fun, forget it.” That should have been Penny’s quote. With her sparkling personality she was like a party just waiting to happen. Pleasing Penny was easy, and any kind of celebration would make her happy. We were planning a surprise birthday party for her fourth birthday.
Mama never had money for gifts but we always had cake and ice cream. Daddy was a Master Electrician and he earned a good pay check, he was even working a lot of overtime, but we saw very little of his money. Mama said he spent most of it in the bars and on new cars. Many a time Mama took all of us kids out the back door, whenever bill collectors came, to hide in the woods.
But all of our birthdays were made special and we felt important, like we mattered. Mama would decorate the house and fix a special meal. We’d eat on the picnic table, weather permitting, in the back yard under the big oak tree. Everyone would gather around and we’d have fun playing games, singing and telling jokes. We’d even put on pretend plays, or puppet shows.
Mama needed help for Penny’s surprise. My job was to keep Penny busy while Mama got everything ready. Ronnie took off down the road to visit a friend. I took Penny outside. We played school and I was the teacher. A couple of empty beer cases made some great chairs, even if they didn’t smell too good. Rusty old TV trays that were rescued from the neighbor’s trash made great desks. Penny drew pictures with several pieces of broken crayons. Pretend home work, of writing the numbers from one to ten, was assigned. After she got tired of that, I read her favorite Little Golden Book to her, “Pokey Little Puppy.”
“Is my party ready yet?” Penny kept asking. I was hoping it wouldn’t be too much longer. Penny was getting harder to entertain and I could hear thunder in the distance. A storm was headed our way so we were going to have the party inside that day.
“She’ll let us know,” I told her again, just as the door opened and Mama came out. She was wiping the sweat off her face with her apron, and she still looked good. Mama always kept herself looking nice. She fixed up and wore make-up every day. I planned to do the same thing if I ever got married.
She sat down under the tree with us. “Isn’t Ronnie back yet?” she asked, “I told him not to be gone too long. Everything’s all set, just as soon as your brother gets back we’ll go in.” We were listening for him to come down the road. Every time we heard a noise Mama jumped up and looked down the road. “Here he don’t come,” she’d say, just trying to be funny and get us all excited.
Penny spotted him first. “Here he comes,” she yelled as we all went out to meet him.
“What took you so long?” Penny asked. “My birthday party’s all ready.”
“Well, I’m here now,” Ronnie said, “Let’s go.” We all started back to the house. Penny ran ahead. Her naturally curly, bright red pony tails bounced in the breeze. Her long green hair ties were swinging. She looked so cute in her plaid dress with the puff sleeves and white buttons down the front. We had to hurry to catch up with her. Mama opened the door and let the birthday girl go in first. Penny’s blue eyes sparkled with excitement. Her favorite thing: A party, just for her.
Red, yellow and green balloons, tied with thread, hung around the living room. Mama had a big sign taped to the wall, “Happy Birthday, Penny.”
The table looked pretty, set with Mama’s few pieces of china. She could thank Duz laundry soap for that. Hidden inside each box of Duz was a piece of fine china, decorated with a golden wheat pattern and gold edging. She had spent many months and was still trying to gather her collection. She only used it for special occasions.
Mama’s little touch of loveliness, in a harsh world.
The silverware collection on the table also came free: hidden, then pulled from boxes of another brand of soap. The forks and spoons even looked good resting on a folded up paper towel. Rising from an empty jelly jar, in the center of the table, were three longed stemmed red roses, picked from her garden. Everything looked colorful and inviting.
We took our places around the table. Chilled glasses of strawberry Kool Aid were poured into red, blue, purple and gold Aluminum Tumblers. The glasses once held cottage cheese and were delivered to our door by the milkman. Mama had asked Penny what she wanted for her birthday dinner, but we knew she’d pick pizza. We all loved Mama’s homemade pizza with Polish Sausage and cheese. Yummy smells filled the room as pieces were passed around. We could hardly wait to sink our teeth into a big slice. We devoured every last bite.
Then we sang the most popular song in the world,“Happy Birthday,” to Penny. She made a wish and blew out all five of her candles. There was always one extra candle on the cake. “And one to grow on,” Mama would say.
Penny made the first cut in the chocolate cake, with white frosting, that she’d asked for. Big pieces were put in bowls for each of us. Every slice was topped off with a large scoop of chocolate ice cream, then drizzled on top with a squirt of Hershey’s Syrup.
Mama hauled out her guitar and played for us. We tried to sing along to “Roll Out The Barrel, We’ll Have a Barrel of Fun.” We spent the rest of the evening playing hide the button and other games. We didn’t need presents. We had each other, and that was enough. Laughter rang throughout our small home until it was time to get ready for bed.
And we knew that another birthday was coming up, but it wouldn’t be near as much fun. The next birthday was going to be Daddy’s. I wondered what Mama was going to make us do for him, trying to show a love that didn’t exist.
Excerpt from the book “Daddy Never Called Me Princess”