Caroline sat on the stool squirming as her Mom tried to get a comb through her tangled hair. “Sit still”, Mom urged. “How can we get this done with you constantly moving around? Your birthday party guests will be here soon.” It was Caroline’s eighth birthday.
“Ouch”, Caroline complained as the comb got caught up in what Mom called a rat’s nest. As her Mom pulled and deconstructed the knot one hair at a time, Caroline thought of the night her Mom had painstakingly put her hair up in pin curls, taking small wet strands, spreading curling gel from roots to ends between pinched fingers, wrapping the hair around her pointer finger and securing each curl against Caroline’s scalp with two bobby pins, making a shape of a cross. Repeating the process over and over while her little sisters fussed and flailed, up past bedtime so that their older sister could have curls in her otherwise painfully straight hair. Her hair color was what Mom called “mouse brown”, which made her wonder if Mom had some sort of association of rodents with hair.
Mom must have been thinking about the pin-curl night too as she once again reminded Caroline of how she had spent what she remembered as hours putting up her hair only for Caroline to take it all out only half an hour after going to bed. “No more curls for you”, Mom muttered. Mom’s own hair was thinning and she often blamed it on what she described as hair abuse as a child, Caroline’s grandmother applying chemicals and using a hot iron in order to attain the desired Shirley Temple curls in Mom’s then-blonde hair. Mom referred to the threat of pocket curls, which was what you could get if you left hair wrapped around a too-hot iron for too long and voila, the curls would come off with the iron and you could put them in your pocket, so to speak. Caroline never knew if Mom was educating her on things everyone knew, general knowledge, or making this stuff up. Either way, Caroline became grateful to have her straight hair.
Caroline jumped off the stool and went to put on her party dress. It was a cotton pinafore covered in little, dainty pink flowers with a smocked bodice. The short sleeves puffed just a bit, the elastic hugging her upper arms lightly allowing her to push the sleeves up and down to get more or less poof. She turned around so Mom could tie the attached belt into a pretty bow in the back. Caroline felt like a princess even though the dress was a hand-me-down from one of Mom’s friends.
As she set the table, Caroline thought about who was coming to the party and who should sit where. One of the girls coming didn’t really know the others very well, but Mom had said that everyone from her class was invited or no one at all. Caroline was genuinely glad when Dottie accepted. Dottie was tall for their age, rather plain and lived in a modest home on the other side of school. Towards the end of the party, Dottie pulled Caroline aside and told her that she admired how Caroline didn’t judge her for being different and included everyone. Mom was right once again.
Caroline felt lucky to have friends with whom she could be herself – dance, laugh, be silly and share tears. Dottie made her realize that wasn’t true for everyone, which made her sad, not only for Dottie, but also for herself. In the past year, she too had become different, an outsider.
She especially felt the separateness at school when her teacher asked the class to share what their fathers did for work. One by one, up and down the rows of desks her classmates told stories about the important jobs their dads did. Closer and closer the stories snaked towards her desk. She tried to think of a way to get out of the room, to escape. Perhaps she could claim illness, which wasn’t too far from the truth given the butterflies in her stomach had turned to nausea. Then it was too late, it was Caroline’s turn. She sat speechless for a moment and in a low voice offered up that she didn’t know what her Dad did for work, and then to herself admitted that she didn’t even know where he was for that matter. Her embarrassment spread across the room like a wave breaking squarely on Miss Penny, who quickly tried to regain the positive momentum with a remark about how that’s OK and called on the boy behind Caroline who proudly proclaimed his dad to be a dentist.
Mom was also no stranger to the family’s new position in the community. Even at Caroline’s age, she knew Mom was sad at being left out of couples parties and multiple-family vacations. Mom was alone in her pain, the only single in her pool of lifelong friends. They must have done something wrong, Caroline thought, or been bad somehow to be punished like this. She wondered if it was her fault, Mom’s or the combination of them all.
As Caroline put the last of the plates on the table, she admired the pile of hollyhock blossoms and buds in the center that she, Mom, and her sisters had collected earlier that morning, walking up the street to where they grew along a fence, wild in the full sun, growing in hard soil as if to say, look at me, I’m beautiful and healthy even though no one fusses over me like they do the roses.
Suddenly the silence was broken by the giggling of arriving girls and Caroline’s thoughts came back to the present moment. Her birthday party began and all feelings other than joy fell away as they cheerfully made hollyhock dolls, ate fairy cakes and sipped lavender lemonade. No one cared that there were no hired clowns or extravagant games as they played musical chairs and dropped clothespins into milk bottles, and for the rest of the day Caroline was just an 8-year old girl who felt love and friendship and perfectly normal.
Happy Birthday, Caroline.