At that moment the doorbell rang, and in anticipation of my first guest I wriggled out of my mother’s arms, slid my arched spine over her knees, and landed on the floor under the table, and crouched there. “Aren’t you going to answer the door?” my mother asked. But I had no intention of doing that; I only wanted to hide.
The day was momentous, but parties were mixed blessings. You got presents, all right—pick-up sticks, or crayons, or flat boxes of modeling clay in many colored strips—but they were the lesser presents of party admissions. And we all had to sit at the table with ridiculous pointed paper hats, and paper plates and noisemakers and popping balloons and pretend to a joyful delirium. In fact, a birthday party was a satire on children directed by their mothers, who hovered about, distributing Dixie Cups and glasses of milk while cooing in appreciation for the aesthetics of the event, the way each child was dressed for it and so on; and who set us upon one another in games of the most acute competition, so that we either cried in humiliation or punched each other to inflict pain.
And it was all done up in the impermanent materials of crepe paper, thin rubber and tin, everything painted in the gaudy colors of lies.
And the climax of the chaos, blowing out the candles on the cake, presented likely possibility of public failure and a loss of luck in the event the thing was not done well. In fact, I had a secret dread of not being able to blow out the candles before they burned down to the icing. That meant death. Candles burning down to the end, as in my grandmother’s tumblers of candles, which could not be tampered with once lit, memorialized someone’s death. And the Friday-night Sabbath candles that she lit with her hands covering her eyes, and a shawl over her head, suggested to me her irremediable grief, a pantomime of the loss of sight that comes to the dead under the earth.
So I blew for my life, to have some tallow left for the following year. My small chest heaved and I was glad for my mother’s head beside mine, adding to the gust, even though it would mean I had not done the job the way one was supposed to, with aplomb.