I awoke knowing today was my third birthday. My whole body shivered with excitement. I heard my mom and dad in the kitchen talking about my birthday party. Rather than join them there, I stood in the back hallway by the door to the living room where they couldn’t see me and listened. It was always good to know what adults were really doing, and they generally said more about that when they did not know I was listening.
“Liz”, my dad’s voice was almost always soft and steady, except sometimes when he got mad, “If it rains we can have the party in the living room. The kids can play down in the basement.”
“Eric”, my Mom’s voice was generally louder with more command and feelings in it, “I’m not comfortable entertaining our friends in this house when we don’t have any furniture.”
“Oh it will be fine!” My dad was always saying that to my mom, though when he said it she usually did not agree. “We’ve got the kitchen chairs, we can bring the lawn chairs in from the outside, plus the chairs from the basement and the rocking chair from Cloob’s room.”
“Where will people put their drinks and their plates?” I could tell my mom was not happy.
“We can move the kitchen table into the living room. Even bring up your work table from the basement.” My dad was always quick to have an answer to every problem my mom had.
My mom sighed. “I know furniture is not a priority right now. But I’m having trouble asking people to come over and see that we have so little. I don’t want Jonathan to feel impoverished.”
Impoverished. I did not know quite what that was but it didn’t sound good.
“I have another year of graduate school and hopefully just a year after that to complete my dissertation. Then I can get a real teaching job.” His voice was still smooth but it seemed more tense.
“I know. I know. God, I know!” She paused. “But honestly Eric, I dread sitting down with the bills each month and figuring out which ones can wait til next month to be paid.”
I listened for it, but did not hear my dad respond. I felt bad for him. I knew my mom thought we needed more money, and my dad was supposed to get it. But I was okay. They bought me toys to play with. Particularly at Christmas and my birthday. I thought about that tricycle I had seen yesterday in the attic. I didn’t feel whatever it was that she had said. After they finished their discussion and were now talking about stuff that was not about me or my birthday, I finally made an appearance in the kitchen. When my mom saw me she lit up and immediately began singing the happy birthday song. My dad joined in. It made me feel shy but I was still very glad.
“Are you excited about your party?” Her eyes twinkled as she asked. My mom loved parties.
I did too of course, especially for my birthday. Feeling suddenly in the spotlight and shy, I just nodded vigorously.
My mom made me a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast, sprinkling on extra sugar “because it’s your birthday”. I told her when to stop adding the milk. After breakfast, she and my dad stayed in the kitchen and worked on boiling potatoes in the big pot and then making potato salad. I watched them for a while. They seemed happiest together when they had a project to do together.
Finally I got bored and went back in my room. I opened my closet door and looked up at the attic hatch in the ceiling. I was tempted to climb up and look again to see if that tricycle was still there. Suddenly I remembered that I had left the hatch askew yesterday when I had heard my dad coming, but now it was back in place. My dad must have seen it and put it back the way it was supposed to be. He must know that I had looked up there. It made me uncomfortable thinking my dad might know something I secretly did. I knew they kept secrets from me, they were adults after all, but I did not want them to know that I did the same thing.
So as it turned out it did not rain. The sun came out between the clouds and at lunchtime the three of us walked across the street to the park. My mom said it was “Mother Nature’s birthday present” to me. My dad carried the big heavy picnic basket full of food and my mom several cloth bags full of everything else for the party.
Almendinger Park was just across the street from the house on the corner next to ours. The edge of the park by us had several big clumps of bushes with lots and lots of little purple flowers. My mom said they were lilacs and that they were in bloom. She put down her bags and encouraged me to walk over and smell them with her. They had a scent so strong it made my mind spin. Beyond the bushes were two baseball fields, but no one was playing right now. Beyond those fields, on the other side of the park, were a bunch of tall maple trees. Under the trees there were swings, a seesaw, a slide, and my favorite thing, the merry-go-round. Two girls were swinging on the swings, talking to each other and laughing. Two boys, older than me, were at the merry-go-round, working together to try to spin it around as fast as possible before jumping on. Around the play equipment were lots of picnic tables.
As I watched the two boys go through their various attempts to go even faster, my mom and dad found three tables close together and began setting up for the party. While they put tablecloths on the tables and then set them with plates, cups and cutlery, I wandered over to the merry-go-round. I stood just out of range of the spinning thing with the two boys hanging off either side until it finally came to a stop. They looked at me with flushed cheeks and excited eyes.
“Can I get on?” I asked. Though I had now started to talk, I was still tenuous about talking with my parents, let alone other adults. But talking to other people like me, kids, was much easier. It was so much easier to tell what they wanted and what they were thinking, that they didn’t make me worry.
They told me to sit in the center and hang on, which I did. They grabbed the metal pipes on opposite sides of the circular thing and began to run. The world began to spin around me. I saw my parents setting up the tables, then my house and our backyard in the distance, then the girls on the swing, then other houses across the street, then back to my parents, endlessly repeating. It all did not seem real anymore, just images that triggered memories in my mind.
The only thing that felt real was when I closed my eyes and concentrated on the force trying to drag my body away from the center. If I let the force pull me it got stronger and stronger. The only place where the force disappeared was in the exact center. I didn’t quite understand why, but there was an intuitive logic to it that made sense somehow. Stay in the center of things and let the world spin around you. As the thing slowed the force went away and my parents, the girls on the swing, and my house, seemed real again, at least mostly so.
“Again?” one of the boys said, looking at me with fierce though friendly eyes.
I nodded and off we went again. Back to the spinning images and then closing my eyes to the reality of that spinning center. Finally the boys got bored, looked at the girls still on the swings, and then walked over to the seesaw and got on. No longer actually spinning, I still sat in the center of the merry-go-round, and when I closed my eyes I had the sensation of spinning again, though when I opened my eyes I was not. I tried this several more times until I opened my eyes to see a familiar face looking at me puzzled.
It was Molly. She lived across the street with her mom and dad. She looked strange because she was wearing a dress like a grown up would wear. That rather than the play clothes like mine I was used to seeing her in. Her straight light colored hair came down over her ears, unlike my own hair which didn’t even make it to the top of mine. Other than my parents, I had probably spent more time with her than anyone else. And unlike my parents, she was a kid like me, a fellow traveler in this journey amongst all these unpredictable and at times troublesome adults.
“I saw you spinning. It looks fun.”
Like a true kid, she said what she saw and how she felt about it. Unlike all the thinking I had to do before responding to and now even talking to my mom and dad, I always felt safe with her to just be who I was, to respond without thinking first. And now that I was talking, I was going to have a lot to talk to her about.
“Two older boys spinned me around really fast. It is strange to see everything spinning around me, like it’s only pictures. I close my eyes and I feel it pulling me away from the middle.” It was the best I could describe it with the words I had.
Molly looked at me, scrunched her nose, and bit her thumb, which she did when she was trying to figure something out. She took it out to speak.
“Wow… You’re talking.” The thumb was back between her teeth as she contemplated the significance of that, but then out again to say more.
“I want to try it!”
Of course she wanted to try it. That is what I would have said too.
“Okay. Sit in the middle and hold on.” I climbed off the thing and pointed at the center. Not used to wearing a dress, she climbed on the big circle with all its bars on her hands and knees, and by the time she got to the center the open part at the bottom of her dress was up around her waist and her underwear showed. Unconcerned about it, she sat in the center and looked at me.
“So spin it… really fast!”
I tried to mimic the older boys and pushed on the bars on the edge of the circle, but I was only strong enough to move it a little, only very slowly.
The two older boys on the seesaw were watching us. They came over to me to offer assistance.
“You want us to spin you two around?”
Both Molly and I nodded.
“Well get on then, in the center, and hang on!”
I climbed on the bumpy metal surface of the big circle and sat in the middle directly opposite Molly. My hands grabbed the bars on either side of us just below hers.
“You ready for the ride of your lives?”
Molly and I looked at each other excitedly. “Ride of your lives” I thought, that sounded really good. We both nodded and looked at each other again, sharing a delicious “what is about to happen to us?” thought.
The boys stood at opposite sides of the circle and started to push. When they got up to a run they jumped on and the merry-go-round spun around with the two of us sitting in the center facing each other. Molly adjusted her grip and I felt the bottom of her hands touch the top of mine. As we stared at each other again, heads just a just a couple feet apart, our physical contact added another dimension to the union. As the world whirled behind her, I watched her hold her body totally still and I saw her eyes looking beyond me at that spinning world and its images behind me. Then she closed her eyes and she immediately spoke.
“I feel it pulling me!” I could see her letting her head and upper body be pulled away from the middle, then the strain as she pulled herself back.
I was in a trance as I saw my parents and hers at the picnic tables, then our houses in the distance across the baseball fields, the girls on the swing now watching us, and then again. All turned into just images, only Molly was real. Even the small distance between us seemed like just an illusion. I did not want the moment to end.
But it did of course. The merry-go-round slowly lost it’s speed. But it struck me that each ending was an opportunity for a new beginning. As we still stared at each other, now just slowly rotating, the thought passed between us, she used words to call it out.
“That was fun!”
She said it, but it was the same thing I was thinking and about to say. It was the only thing to be said and there was nothing more profound that a kid could utter! And of course we both knew it warranted more investigation, including both the visual perception and the force part.
“Again?” one of the older boys called out.
Molly and I exchanged that excited look again with all the thoughts of adventure and uncharted experience behind that look.
“Again!” Molly called out over her shoulder, but then looking at me, her eyes flaring with fierceness, “faster this time!”. I liked it that she wanted it faster, and that she was looking at me when she said it.
“Okay then”, called out one of the boys. I could hear in his voice that this was just what he was hoping we would say, maybe even what the two of them knew we were going to say. They started pushing again, making a show of their effort, jamming each footfall into the ground, and grunting and groaning as they increased the spin significantly more than the first time. Finally they let go, and watched us whirl around, both with a sense of pride at being so capable of helping their younger comrades have this wild ride.
“Wow!” We actually both said it this time, and at the same time, causing us both to follow with a laugh.
Still spinning but losing speed now, I felt sure enough on my feet to stand up, while still clinging to the bars. Molly watched me and followed suit. We looked at each other fiercely, like we could do anything. The thing slowed more and Molly let loose of the bars, took a step toward the edge, but lost her balance and tumbled off the merry-go-round face first into the dirt.
The older boys grabbed the bars and stopped the rotation completely. I jumped off and felt the same dizziness overcome me like it apparently had Molly. But I managed to stay on my feet as I came to a stop and then ran over to her. She sat up. There was dirt in her hair and both knees and one elbow were scraped pink, quickly changing to red. Her dress was covered in dirt.
She looked at me as her mom ran over yelling, “Molly, oh my god!”. You could hear the fear in her mom’s voice, like Molly had been hurt badly. As I saw the train of thought in Molly’s eyes, it struck me that she initially felt she was okay, just surprised. But she reacted to the fear in her mom’s words, that maybe she was not okay, and only then started to cry. Now all the adults came and clustered around us, taking control of the scene. The two older boys hung back, next to each other for support.
“We’re sorry”, one said, “We didn’t think she’d try to do that!”
Molly’s mom gave them a perfunctory nod and then focused in on Molly.
My mom was behind me and put a hand on my right shoulder, patting my left shoulder with the other one. I stood there silently, wanting to say something to make Molly feel better, but feeling awkwardly impotent around all theses adults. I stayed silent as Molly’s mom and dad dusted her off, made sure her arms and legs could move okay, and examined the scrapes on her knees and elbow. Molly glanced at me with sad red eyes, sniffling, as the tears flowing down over her now rosy cheeks.
I could see a sense of embarrassment in her mom’s eyes as she looked at the other adults gathered around her.
“Molly is such a tomboy!”
I felt sad for Molly and angry at all the adults who needed this to be said to them.
Her mom took Molly’s hand, looked at my dad for a moment then focused on my mom.
“Jane, I’ll take her home, get her cleaned up, and we’ll be back.”
Her hands still on my shoulders, my mom nodded with lips pursed and concerned eyes.
“Joan, when I was a little girl I was just like Molly.” She knew just what to say. “I’d come home at least once a week with some sort of bruise or scrape!”
I could see Molly’s mom’s face relax. The other adult women at the party gathered around and tried to reassure her as well.
One said, “Molly is such a pretty girl!”
Molly’s mom said, “Thank you”, and rubbed Molly’s head. Molly stood there quietly looking down as her mom tried to rearrange her messed up hair. I watched her mom walk her home across the baseball field.
Now everybody else was at the party, including a couple other kids that I knew, who now came over to me. Kenny lived across the street next to Molly, but I didn’t play with him as much. Danny, who was older than me, I played with when my mom took me with her when she would visit his mom at their house. Between the three of us kids we had the expectation that Danny, who was oldest among us, had the opportunity to speak first, which he did.
“So what happened to that girl?”
After seeing Molly’s mom’s embarrassment, I wasn’t sure what to say in response that would not reflect badly on Molly.
“She fell I guess”, Kenny chimed in tentatively.
“Yeah!” Danny said the word as two syllables. There was an inflection in his voice as if the fact that she fell was obvious and did not need to be confirmed. “Girls!” he pronounced.
“Girls!” parroted Kenny, not wanting to go against the wisdom of the elder among the three of us.
I wanted to disagree, but did not want to single myself out, and instead said nothing and just looked down at the ground.
My dad and Molly’s were at the grill cooking the corn and the hot dogs. My mom was on her feet passing out plates and being in charge of things. The other adults were sitting at one of the two other tables, including Kenny’s mom and dad and Danny’s mom. The other two men were my dad’s friends. Kenny, Danny and I were sitting at the other table, which had several wrapped boxes, that I knew were presents for me, on the other end. Just looking at them made me feel excited, and I of course wondered what was in each. My mom called out to the three of us to come over and get some food.
“Janey!” It was Danny’s mom. She had an accent that I would later learn was from the South. “You’ve got a bun in the oven. You should let me do that!”
“I’m just getting into my third trimester”, my mom responded, rubbing her big stomach with her hands, “I still have lots of energy.” She seemed to be very knowledgeable on the subject, as she seemed to be on most everything she talked about.
“I wouldn’t disagree that you do dear, but please let me help!”
My mom nodded, and Danny’s mom along with Kenny’s fixed us our plates of food, which we carried over to the table where the adults weren’t sitting. The three of us ate quietly. I thought about Molly and why she let go of the bars, and that she was okay really until her mom got scared. I would ask her about it later.
I overheard the adults talking about my name, particularly one of my dad’s friends.
“So what are you calling him, Johnny?”
“Well…” said my dad tentatively.
“His name is Jonathan”, it was my mom’s forceful voice, “Not Johnny or even John. My brother is named John. Our son is Jonathan!”
I didn’t really feel like my name was Jonathan, or John or Johnny for that matter. And among the array of nicknames, it wasn’t “Zuper” either, but one of those “C” names, though I wasn’t sure which one. In the past when adults asked me my name, I wasn’t talking yet, so my parents answered for me. Now that I was talking, I pondered what I would say my name was.
Molly and her mom finally returned. Molly was now in regular clothes like me, with a bandaid on her elbow. Pulling up her pant legs, she showed me two more, one on each knee. Her mom fixed her a plate of food and pointed at the spot next to me at the table where three of us boys were sitting. Molly seemed to resist, but her mom persisted and she finally sat there. I sensed that it wasn’t because Molly did not want to sit next to me, but that she did not want to talk about her fall. But Danny did.
“So what happened to you on the merry-go-round?”
Molly scrunched her face, put her thumb in her mouth and bit it. She shrugged her shoulder and took her thumb back out. “I fell.”
“Are you okay?” He didn’t say it quite like a grownup would. Not like he was going to do something about it if she said no.
Molly nodded and stuck the end of her hotdog into her mouth, and seemed happy that that kept her from having to say anything else for the moment. We all ate quietly. I was certainly happy to have my best friend back and sitting next to me.
When we finished, Danny’s mom came by and took our plates. It was soon after that that everyone sang me happy birthday. Of the three fellow kids sitting at the table with me, Danny, the oldest, sang the loudest, gesturing toward me with his hands and making some silly facial expressions while he did. I felt shy being sung to, particularly by all the adults. I glanced at Molly while everyone was singing, and she smiled at me, which made me feel better.
The song ended with my mom carrying my birthday cake towards me so everyone could see it, with three lit candles on top. I remembered the ritual from my previous birthday, including that I was supposed to blow them out. She placed the rectangular cake down in front of me. It had white frosting with blue writing on it. I recognized the first word “Happy”, since my mom had pointed it out to me in some of the picture books she had read to me. And i recognized the last word as my name, “Jonathan”. The one in between starting with the “B” I figured had to be “Birthday”.
“Now make a wish before you blow out the candles!” My mom said to me, looking into my eyes with hers expectantly. I did not remember this part of the ritual if they had even done it last year. I struggled with whether they were all expecting me to actually say what my wish was, and if so, what I would say. I thought about the tricycle, maybe that would be my wish. But then if I said that was my wish would my parents realize that I had peeked in the attic and seen it there. Would they think less of me for doing that. I better have a different wish!
I was relieved when my mom said, “Now don’t tell anyone your wish or it may not come true!”
The weight lifted from my shoulders, I blew out the candles with the biggest breath I could muster. Danny and all the adults cheered and clapped. Kenny and Molly, newer to the ritual like me, mimicked the adults by clapping too. Though still a bit uncomfortable, I felt happy.
My mom asked me if I wanted to open my presents. Even before I could nod, Danny chimed in, “He definitely wants to!” All the adults laughed.
I was silently mad at Danny for saying that. I did not like that he was presuming to know how I felt and speak for me, even though it was true what he was saying. When I wasn’t talking yet, I had to put up with other people, mostly my parents, speaking about what I was feeling on my behalf, though I still did not like it.
But it all faded away when I got to open my presents. I loved the anticipation of holding each wrapped box in my hands, feeling its weight relative to its size, and anticipating what it might be before tearing off the wrapping paper. I did not care that others were watching me, even all the adults.
The first present I opened was from Kenny and his parents, it was a box of Lincoln Logs, with a picture of a fort on it. Kenny’s mom said, “Kenny told us you already have Lincoln logs, but you can never have too many!” That was true, and I was excited and nodded vigorously.
The next was from my dad’s two friends, Frank and Walter. It was six books, all the same size and wrapped together. Walter said, “It’s the latest series of Tom Swift books. Frank and I know you’re probably not reading quite yet, but we made your father promise to read them to you. And we have verified that your dad’s reading skills are sufficient to the task.” Frank, Molly’s dad, and my dad all laughed.
The book on top had a picture on the cover of a rocket ship leaving the Earth below and headed into space, with a big window in it with a boy in gold suit looking out. Each of the others had some vehicle – jet plane, submarine, spaceship – with the same boy either piloting it or floating in a spacesuit outside it. The images, and the stories each image suggested, thrilled my imagination.
The next present was from Danny and his mom, Danny indicating he had picked it out himself. I ripped off the wrapping paper and the cover of the box had a picture of four smiling boys around a small metal board painted to look like a football field with little plastic figures of football players on it in two different colors. I recognized it was a football field because my mom and dad had taken me to a game at the Michigan stadium not far from our house. Danny said it was an Electric Football set. You turned it on and the plastic players moved all by themselves. It intrigued me, but Danny said I should probably wait until I got home to open it up and try it, and ask my dad to help.
The last wrapped present was from Molly and her parents. It was a plastic but real looking space helmet with a clear plastic visor that could be opened and closed. I took it out of the box and put it on my head, looking out through the plastic shield at the people around me.
“Jonathan sure looks like he’s ready for what’s coming!” It was my dad’s friend Frank talking. “Just heard that Eisenhower wants us to set up a civilian space agency so we can outdo the Russians.”
I did not know who these Russians were, and that they were the same thing as the Soviet Union, but I figured this was not the right time for me to ask.
“I don’t know if you could pay me enough to sit on top of one of those big rockets.” It was Walter now. “I watched that Vanguard rocket explode last December at Cape Canaveral.”
My dad chimed in. “Once they work out the kinks, I’d do it! Poe, Verne, men have been writing about taking a rocket to the moon since early in the 19th century. And I grew up reading all the pulp science fiction – John Carter and Buck Rogers.”
“Yeah, me too”, said Molly’s dad, “Though I never in a million years thought it could ever come true!”
The adult women at the party had all been silent on this topic until my mom ventured to say something.
“I believe”, her voice always commanded attention and the others quieted, “That anything we can imagine we can make come true!”
“Really Jane?” asked Walter, “Even time travel?”
My mom did not back down. “Really Walter… even time travel!” There was a determination in her voice that was compelling. Walter sighed and shook his head.
“Honestly,” it was Danny’s mom putting her hand on my mom’s shoulder, “I sometimes wonder if Jane hasn’t traveled back in time to our age to get us all off our rear ends!” All the adults laughed, even Walter.
My mom nodded and grinned, her cheeks flushed a little as everyone was looking at her, but I could tell she, unlike me, enjoyed being the center of attention. “Lennice. I’ll never confess, but it’s been a heck of a ride!” More laughter from all the adults. The four of us kids just looked at each other, not sure what they were talking about. Danny rolled his eyes.
“But Liz”, my dad’s voice was always quieter and less emotional than my mom’s, always reminding her of something, “There’s one more present.”
“Right!” My mom looked at my dad as if there were lots of thoughts going through her mind that she wasn’t talking about. She turned and looked at me, still in my new space helmet, her eyes sparkled. “This is for you from your dad and I.”
Pulling up a blanket that was draped over it, my dad wheeled out a red tricycle with black wheels. There it was in front of me, the one that I had seen in the attic yesterday, but wasn’t supposed to see until now. I stared at it, feeling everybody looking at me, not sure how to react. Unlike my mom, I did not like talking when I was the center of attention, especially around adults.
“Do you like it sweetie?” My mom finally asked.
I nodded, but felt the adults maybe were thinking I didn’t. Expecting me to be more excited and say so. But I had already been thinking about it for a long time. I just wanted to experience the thing that was now part of my set of toys. I looked at my mom and didn’t say anything, but nodded again more vigorously, and then at my dad and did the same. I decided I should at least sit on it to show how much I liked it. It was all shiny and new. The metal seat felt cold and slippery under my rear end. My hands circled around the black handle grips. Plastic had a special feeling to it when it was new. My feet rested on each of the black plastic pedals. I pushed the pedal with my left foot and then with my right and the big wheel in front started to turn and I was moving.
I headed toward the merry-go-round, going between the grill and the table with all the food. Despite the rain the previous day, the ground below me held firm. Molly, Kenny and Danny got up from the table and followed me. Following my lead, the four of us left the adults behind, with all their speculation of a future that was more ours than theirs.
That night at bedtime my dad read me chapter 19 of Tom Sawyer. After appearing surprisingly when everybody thought he was dead in the last chapter, his Aunt Polly was really mad at him for not telling the truth, and he tried to convince her otherwise. I admired his brazenness, being able to lie to adults to get what he wanted, but it was not something I would do. I might withhold information to make them not think badly of me, like not telling my mom and dad I had peeked in the attic and seen the tricycle. But I did not want my parents to be concerned about what I was doing, and therefore keeping their eye on me. If I said things that were not true on purpose and they found out they could certainly become concerned, and I could lose that freedom from their gaze. Adults had to be managed, and Tom Sawyer seemed to be the master.
After finishing reading, my dad sang me songs. Some the same as last night but one I had not heard for a while but liked a lot…
I want to go back to Michigan
To dear Ann Arbor town
Back to Joe’s and the Orient
And back to some of the money I spent
I want to go back to Michigan
To dear Ann Arbor town
I want to go back; I got to go back
Oh! Father and Mother pay all the bills
And we have all the fun
In the friendly rivalry of college life, Hooray
And we have to figure a helluva lot
To tell what we have done
With the coin we blew at dear ole’ Michigan
I wasn’t clear what a lot of it meant, but I liked the spirit and feelings in my dad’s voice when he sang it, more feelings than when he talked. I knew the song was about my hometown, but also somehow about managing your parents so you could do what you wanted.