"The Birthday Party"
We're together for the first time in five years. Three sisters. Terry, the oldest, pastes us together with persistence and illusion. She believes we can be a family, that we are a family. Julie, the youngest, bites her lower lip and wears a worried brow, even while driving her red Miata with the top down to her job as a South Florida city planner. And me, in the middle. I moved to Connecticut almost twenty years ago to cut free from my tangled roots, I thought. I know that my illness (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) structures my life in a way my family must find limiting, and that my writing aspirations might seem paltry and a little suspect. So when I return Upstate to the barren terrain on chilly Lake Ontario, where my neuroses and fears were planted, watered, and pruned, I take their suspicions as truth. I feel I've failed.
We're together to celebrate our mother's birthday, her seventy–fifth, and each sister brings her gifts to the party. Collectively, we also bring one hundred thirty years of survival skills, learned, not on some Outward Bound wilderness adventure with a trusted coach, but in this family, where I, at least, believed no one was to be trusted.
For the three weeks before this gathering, we've made plans. When I called to ask Terry what I can contribute to the buffet, she discourages me from bringing anything other than Tom. "I didn't think about sleeping arrangements before this," Terry thinks out loud. Julie's getting here first, so I'll put her and Ken in the guest room. You could sleep in Katie's room, and Tom could take the pullout in the den. But," she pauses, still deliberating, "It's big enough for two if you want to stay with Tom." Terry and I have been sisters for forty–four years. We emerged, screaming, from the same womb, played hide and seek in the same neighborhood, suffered algebra in the same high school. But before those twelve words ("It's big enough for two if you want to stay with Tom,") we never talked about touching men or sleeping with them. When I hang up I tell Tom about this tender talk between my sister and me and I'm baffled when he says, "I guess she thinks I'm okay." But how could he know better? He's not Catholic. He wasn't raised in a place where no one touched without squirming. And he doesn't know how important it is to try to get to know your sister when you've spent three decades shoring up the distance from her and you're no longer even sure why.
When I call Julie the next day, she rails when she hears how Terry decided the party details without asking her. "Why did I bother asking how I could help if she's taking care of everything?" I'm the middle sister, in the middle, again and always, but I welcome Julie's assault. Anything is better than the unexplained, monochromatic plateau that's stretched between us since her marriage ten years ago. "I forgot what the weather's like up there early spring," she says, trying to regain her equilibrium. "I don't know what to wear."
"Late April's still winter Upstate," I posit. "Pants and a sweater maybe."
"I might need something new," Julie muses, and thoughts of a shopping mission prod her back into party stride. "We have to make sure there's something everyone can eat," she says. "They're all on special diets. I'll call Terry."
* * * * *
"You made it," Terry effuses when she greets Tom and me in the foyer. "How was the drive?"
"An hour or so too long," I say, and wonder, as soon as the words are out, if she thinks what I've said means I don't want to be here. We hug, or make an attempt at a hug, and when we touch, I want more than her body gives back. I want a big hug, a warm hug, because in her stiffness, I hear questions. Is she angry because I don't do my share? That she's the one saddled with local responsibility? The one who hosts holiday parties and drives Dad to the hospital for his cataract surgery and perms Mom's hair?
"Nice outfit," she says, and I resist the temptation to suggest a different hair color for her.
When Terry offers her cheek for a quick kiss, I see Julie at the edge of the foyer, half in, half out, arms crossed. "Hi," she says, stretching the one syllable to two, an octave higher than her normal speaking voice. She's trying. Hard.
"You look great," I say, too enthusiastically, hoping to fire her up, inspire her to try a little harder.
"Hungry?" Terry asks.
"Starved," I say, not letting on, I hope, that what I want most is not food, but distraction from familial discomfort.
Tom and I head back to the car for the dinner fixings I brought — ravioli and salad greens from Enzo's market, bread and cheesecake from Angela Mia's bakery — and Terry, Julie and I set about making the meal. When the three of us are in the kitchen, I know before Terry lifts the lid from the boiling ravioli that she'll sample one, then another before she pronounces, "They're done." Then she'll wrap the dish towel around the pot handles so she won't burn herself when she lifts it from the stove and dumps the steaming pasta into her twenty–year–old stainless colander with the rickety feet in the sink. And I know how Julie will stand at the counter, with her shoulders sloping forward, while she dices tomatoes and chops garlic.
I know their rhythms, but I want to reach out to them, to ask them please will they tell me they love me, will they be my friends. I wonder how we came from the same house, the same neighborhood, and why it seems hard to say something spontaneous, to touch one another, or offer comfort, or to laugh from our bellies. I fumble for something to say. "Enzo's was so crowded when I shopped for this stuff, I had to meditate to steady myself when I got home, even before I unloaded my bags." They look at me as if they want to say something, but they don't exactly know how post–shopping meditation works or why it should be necessary. Terry jumps in to fill the vacuum. "How are the grocery prices in Connecticut?"
The next day is party day, and at one o'clock relatives arrive from all across the county. My aunts and uncles come with new plastic knees and hips and medicines to take on schedule to control the diabetes and the Parkinson's and the shakes. My aunts, who bathed me and shampooed my hair with castile soap, who took me to lunch at McCurdy's downtown, taught me to bake applesauce raisin cupcakes, and let me play in their dark attics and dress up in their yellowed wedding dresses.
For almost twenty years, I've kept my distance from these relatives, these potential friends, visiting every year or so for a day or two of polite, stilted conversation. My emotional vision was too distorted to be with them for any length of time. And, I suppose, I needed to banish myself. I do my best at this party to look them straight in the eye when I talk, to recover a little what I lost by staying away. But then Uncle Frank tells me my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome must be caused by some emotional twist, or by the fact that I'm alone, away from my family. Like a working man's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he confides horror stories about men he knew in the factory who went blind from jealousy, or ended up in wheelchairs from unexpressed fears. "Why don't you come home, honey?" he wants to know. Home?, I wonder. Is this place still home?
There's a lot of red in this house, I notice when I scan the crowd. Except for Terry, whose hair still imitates the non–offensive light brown we were born with, each of us female cousins wears some shade or other of red hair: medium red beech; burgundy berry; cinnaberry; sunset blonde. And though my mother and her two sisters didn't discuss in advance what they'd wear, each of them is in red: tiny Aunt Emma in the knit she wore for last year's Christmas portrait with her ten grandchildren; Aunt Anna in a red and black striped twinset with a black skirt; and Mom in a red blazer and skirt. One wears a strand of pearls, another a locket, the other her "good" watch because this is a special occasion. All this red surprises me because we're not what you'd call a red family. We may glower underneath, but as a rule, we don't flare or flame. I love movies with families where fathers pound their fists on holiday tables as easily as they hug their daughters, congratulate their sons, and carve the turkey. But the Baltic temperament doesn't spew its guts. It smolders chalky gray, and the red stays buried beneath the surface.
They look too small, these three women, sitting next to each other on the overstuffed couch. It seems like there's too much distance between them. I want them to scrunch together (which, of course, they won't do) so they seem closer.
It's important, though, that these three little women are together on this sofa, posing for a portrait. Aunt Anna never used to let us take her picture. But maybe, like me, she knows there's something final about this picture. Each of them is ill. Aunt Emma is diabetic, and, although we don't know it at the time, a cancer is growing in her left breast, just above her heart. Aunt Anna has Parkinson's disease, and Mom has a bad heart and Parkinson's, too. I don't know all the specifics as I look at these three women on the birthday couch, but I know that something will happen to them soon. "That's it." Aunt Anna waves us away with her shaky arm. "Enough pictures." She pushes herself off the couch and goes to the kitchen where she can turn on the television and watch a golf tournament. The moment is over, but we have it on film, and in our hearts.
They are failing now. That's what my cousin writes to me in her note at Christmas. "Mom is failing." When I call Aunt Anna at her apartment, she tells me how she uses a walker now because she fell three times during the last month. And when I call Terry for more detail, she tells me, "Aunt Anna is failing." My father doesn't use the same words to describe my mother. Failing isn't a word that would come easily to him. He's more inclined, when he talks about Mom, to run through a detailed report on when she last saw the neurologist, when she's scheduled to see him next, her new medication regimen: four–thirty in the morning, then noon, three and five in the afternoon, and seven–thirty at night. I admire the structure he gives her illness, but I know his temper is short with her. When he barks at her to come to the phone when I call, my stomach clenches, and I worry that hers does too.
In twenty–five years, I ask myself when I look at the portrait of my mother and her sisters, when my sisters and I are smaller than we are today, when we sit together on a couch for a picture on Terry's seventy–fifth birthday, how much space will hang between us? Will we be able to reach across the distance, to touch each other, to smile? I don't know. But I do know that if I hope to touch them in the future, I need to embrace them today, as they are, not as I would have them be.
Different versions of The Birthday Party first appeared in Buffalo Spree and Common Ties.
Madeleine Parish is an award-winning novelist, essayist and short fiction writer. Her novel, The Geography Lesson, was recognized by the PEN Women of San Francisco in their First Novel Competition. A 2008 Pushcart Prize nominee, her work appears regularly in publications including The Phoenix, Breath and Shadow, and Common Ties. She lives, writes and conducts writing workshops in Fairfield County Connecticut.