Mom was 6 months pregnant and bedridden as we approached the winter of 2000. Her body was in a constant state of early labor for most of the pregnancy. Bill had to take medical leave from the sausage factory so there would be someone home to take care of Hope and Hannah while I was at school. I couldn’t remember having ever been as poor as we were at that time. Our daily diet consisted of whatever the WIC coupons we received would buy, generally, canned tuna, peanut butter, dried beans, milk, and Juicy Juice. The coupons were meant to be enough for just Mom so she could properly nourish the child she was carrying, but we spread it out among all 5 of us (6, if you count unborn baby Josiah). We had a small stock of sausage leftover in the freezer and up until it started getting cold, we had zucchini and yellow squash on occasion from a generous neighbor’s garden. I’m not exaggerating when I say that was it. Even then I thought our poverty was probably a large part of the reason Krystal left again to live with Dad.
We kept the heat way down in the lower 60s, partly because Mom was always flushed, but mostly to keep the gas bill lower. My room was in the basement, the coldest part of the house. On the eve of my twelfth birthday, I awoke to Hope tugging at my blankets. Through the pitch black room, all I could see were the perfect shiny whites of her eyes, reflecting the slight bit of moonlight coming through the one small window in the far corner. It took me a second to realize I wasn’t dreaming because Hope had never come down the creaky wooden stairs into the basement before by herself, let alone at night. Then I heard it, Hannah crying at the top of the stairs. Hope leaned in and whispered almost inaudibly, “she had a bad dream.”
Bracing myself for the bite of the icy air, I peeled back my covers and shivered. Grabbing Hope’s delicate little hand, we ascended the stairs toward our blubbering red-faced little sister. Hope explained that she went into Mom’s room but Bill said she couldn’t climb in bed with them because she might kick Mom’s belly. After calming Hannah, the three of us made ourselves a comfortable pallet of blankets on the floor in the living room and spent the rest of the night cuddled there together. We slept curled up in the living room for most of the winter after that, keeping our bodies snuggled closely to stay warm. We wore socks, long pants under our night shirts or gowns, sweatshirts over that, and on particularly cold nights we also wore hats and mittens.
As the morning sun began pouring into the house, I heard rustling coming from Mom’s room. She had a rough night again, not sleeping because of the constant aching of her legs and pressure on her midsection. No one said anything to me as I got ready and left for school.
From our very first years, Mom set the precedent of making all our birthdays a big celebration. Even though we didn’t necessarily get loads of gifts every year, there was always some, and usually decorations, a homemade cake with ice cream, and a gathering of family members. She possessed a special talent to make a person feel loved and significant and always made extra efforts to do so on our birthdays.
On the bus on the way home that day, I could feel tears surging against the back of eyes as I recalled the lack of special treatment I received that morning. I’m pretty sure They forgot it’s my birthday. One of the skills I’d mastered by then was coaching myself through tough emotions. It’s okay. It’s probably better that they forgot because we don’t have money to waste on cake or presents. I know Mom would feel bad they couldn’t spend it so at least if she forgot she doesn’t have to feel bad. I resolved not to acknowledge my birthday myself or mention it to them when I got home.
I took a well-practiced bottomless breath to fortify myself before opening the front door to our residence. I spotted a green balloon on the floor as I pushed open the door. Hope & Hannah were front and center grinning ear to ear as they, in unison with Mom and Bill, squealed, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” There were about a dozen or so balloons of several colors floating about the floor. Mom was sitting up in her recliner, beaming. Bill stood next to her. I caught sight of the two little signs taped to the edge of the dining room table like a banner, a picture of all of us holding hands with “HAPPE BRTDAY KALA” spelled out in Hope’s brand-new crooked lettering and another picture that looked like a house but I couldn’t quite make it out. As I took them all in, drops started trickling down my face and to the floor. The girls raced to see who could hug me first. Mom reached up, locking her arms around me squeezing tightly. “I thought you forgot.” I said, feeling the tears pool up again. Half laughing, half consoling she said, “I could never.” We eased out of our embrace and I turned to discover a cake on the table that I somehow missed before. It was shaped like a log cabin with graham crackers as the roof, set atop a bed of green icing, with a sign out front that read “Ingalls’ Home.” One of the girls’ toy cows and toy pigs were each settled into the green icing as well. My mind was mauled by my emotions and my being was drowning in love.
As a girl I was obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder and all of her books. Before I could read, Mom read them aloud to me; when I learned, I read them again. Her writing style coupled with stories about childish adventures and family values, populated with believable characters, depicted a simpler but still meaningful life I so envied. It was comfort. Those stories were my version of a security blanket. I had started reading them all over at the beginning of the summer but I didn’t even think my parents noticed. Mom told me she made the batter and Bill baked the cakes. He shaved them down to make them into the shape of the cabin and even iced them. She told me it was all his idea, except the farm animals, that was Hope. I’d spent my life in the shadows of my older sister, frantically wishing for a smidgen of the kind of daddy-daughter relationship she had with our own Dad. I was moved. At this singular juncture, I felt seen. I felt the possibility I had so long ago let go of, come back within my grasp. And so, on my twelfth birthday, Bill won over my heart.
The sausage and squash was notably tastier that night. It was exceedingly difficult to work up the will to cut into my Little House cake, but it was well worth it, my favorite, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Mom’s baking never disappointed.
For months, I had been fruitlessly pleading with Mom to let me start wearing makeup. I inherited her prominent dark circles and I was fed up with kids at school teasing me, asking me if I was sick or had black eyes. Also, I was jealous of the popular girls and their glittering silver-blue eyeliner. As Bill cleared the table, Mom had Hope fetch her makeup bag. To my joyful surprise, she spent the next hour teaching me how to put on makeup, light and evenly. She did her face while I did mine. Since she couldn’t stand to do it in the bathroom, we took turns using the tiny mirror in the brown case of Cover Girl powder foundation.
Mom always smelled faintly of roses, oregano, and lipstick. To this day, however, a slight whiff of Cover Girl foundation immediately brings me back to the chair beside Mom’s, the day I turned twelve.
There was no big gathering, there were no presents, there wasn’t even a card; but this day did not only go down as my greatest birthday, it also became one of my most cherished childhood memories, one I’d firmly clutch and keep close to my core, willfully bestowing upon it a hopeful symbolism I’d fervently cling to for many years. Nothing outwardly profound occurred that day, but I soaked up the affection, basked in the warmth of security and inclusion. These sensations would carry me through the next couple of seasons in my life, leading me to feel valued. To someone outside it may seem like a rather boring and average day; but it profoundly impacted my perspective of my step-father. From this day forward, I fell back on this memory as assurance to myself that he was a man with a big selfless heart and, more importantly, that I was relevant to him.