Cris Beam left her mother's home at age 14, driven out by a suburban household of hidden chaos and mental illness. The two never saw each other again. More than twenty years later, after building the happy home life she'd never had as a child, Beam learned of her mother's death and embarked on a quest to rediscover her own history.
It was during a time when my mother seemed saner that I decided to throw a birthday party for her. I was 11, and I wanted to show my mom that I loved her; I thought I had the power to keep the good mom going strong -- that, like the moon, I could control her tides. Of course, I was a child; of course, I was wrong.
Birthdays so far had been memorable in a good way. At one Miss America-themed party, I invited several girls over to dress up, pageant style, and walk the runway across our living room floor. My mom took our pictures with the Polaroid, and we made frames out of cardboard, adorning each with phrases like "Number One!" and "Winner!" At another birthday party, my mom created a scavenger hunt, and we ran around looking for sparkly rocks or asking neighbors for a slice of cheese. When I had a sleepover in fifth grade, we all tried to make Shelly wet her sleeping bag after she fell asleep by rubbing ice on the inside of her arm, and my mom prepared scrambled eggs and cinnamon toast for everybody in the morning. She was intensely shy and repeatedly told us that "you shouldn't stick your head above the crowd or someone could chop it off." But on our birthdays she allowed us to be special. For one day, my brother or I could wear the paper crown from Burger King and be the center of attention.
All of these parties required forethought, and kindness, so these memories are the most painful and awkward to revive. They're like the gels they slide over the lights at a theater, suddenly casting everything in a reddish or greenish tone. If my mom was so achingly normal on my birthday, so generous, so present, what did that say about the ghost who faded away most nights? The spliced-in mom who threw plates and slapped and screamed? Or the mom who was like a baby, crying when my dad came to pick us up and take us away from her?
Ours was a family of two realities: the one we lived through and the one that had formed in my mother's mind. She was often convinced that we were going to starve, because we didn't have enough money for food. When I was growing up, she talked endlessly about not being able to cover the mortgage on the house and how we could end up homeless and living in a box. It took me years to realize that these were fantasies.
But it was at the birthday party for my mother that I threw myself that another version of her reemerged, with full force.
I planned the party in cahoots with her boyfriend Ron. He wore polyester pants and zip-up ankle boots and advised me to put rubbing alcohol on a sunburn, which stung like hell. He and my mom drank pink wine from the box that perched on the top shelf of our refrigerator and listened to Barbra Streisand albums while filling in crosswords. My mom could complete the puzzles faster by herself, but she liked to coo in admiration when Ron held the pencil.
I asked Ron to pretend to take my mom to dinner and then to turn the car around 20 minutes later so everybody could jump out and yell "Surprise!" The only sticking point in the fantasy was who "everybody" was. My mother had no friends, so I didn't know whom to invite. I called my friend Heather's mom, a lady named Lucile, who had known my mom back when my parents were married. And I called my mom's job, a place I knew as a boring room by the freeway where she worked with a chain smoker named Elaine doing "the books." Elaine and Lucile said they'd come, but that made only two guests.
She always claimed to be working five jobs, though I only counted one. She said she was a prostitute.
Should I ask some of the other men to the party? I didn't have their phone numbers, so I started inviting the neighbors. I went door to door, explaining that her birthday was coming up and would they please come to a party and hide in our closets and jump out and yell "Surprise!" These people, dragged away from their sitcoms and their Swanson dinners, looked bewildered: They didn't know her. But wasn't I the kid who was always trying to force their kids to act in plays I had made up? Yes, yes, I grinned. I told them to come over at seven; there would be cake.
I canvassed several blocks, but in the end maybe six people showed, plus Lucile and Elaine from work. They still wore the same confused expressions as they buzzed the doorbell, and I pushed them into closets or down below the couch. I was shaking with excitement as I turned out the lights and watched at the front window for Ron's headlights to appear in the driveway; I had to shush someone's whispered "What the hell are we doing here?" lest he blow the surprise.
Finally the car pulled up. I heard my mother giggling to Ron about his forgetfulness and having to come back home so soon as the door handle turned. I flicked on the lights, and all the strangers, on cue, leaped up and shouted.
She was framed in the doorway and reached backward for Ron's arm. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish. I had forgotten that the confetti I had made from construction paper was still stuffed in my hand, so I threw it, in a sweaty clump, at her face. She batted it away. Slowly, the neighbors came forward.
"I'm Donna," a woman said, extending her hand. "Happy birthday."
My mom looked like she was going to cry, and I realized, like a sudden kick to the throat, what a terrible mistake I had made. This was worse than sticking your head above the crowd. It was assembling a crowd for her beheading.
"Why would you do this to me?" my mom whispered as I pulled out the cake Ron had bought from the grocery store. Everybody sang "Happy Birthday," but it was awkward when some people didn't remember her name. A few neighbors had brought presents like stationery or jars of peanuts wrapped in tissue, but it was clear my mom wouldn't open them, since she kept saying "Thank you for coming!" after her first nibbles at the frosting.
She was swaying strangely in her beige flats. I tried to make grown-up party talk like I'd seen on TV, but nobody was interested in me, and I was distracted by my mom's voice, which was that of a little girl, with too much breath and fear and pitch. I didn't want anyone to see her like this; she usually stayed indoors when she was her tiniest self; the voice was a precursor to one of her marathon migraines. I had forgotten about getting anything to drink, so there was only the pink wine, and people drank tap water out of our mugs and the walls were getting too close and almost sweaty and the people seemed to want to leave but I couldn't go home with them.
In the morning my mother thanked me for the party; she had spent the night getting soothed by Ron, and I had spent it counting and recounting my stuffed animals, touching their noses and tapping their heads in my special code, so I could face my mom again.