Mad Hatter Birthday Party

Each child was dressed in her or his best outfit to attend my birthday party. No doubt a mother briefed each child before the party with instructions for proper etiquette. Looking a bit stiff,  befuddled or anxious, we all wore paper cone hats, which we had decorated ourselves. We sat politely around the rectangular wooden table in the kitchen while the little Dixie cups of vanilla ice cream softened and we waited for the cake to be cut.

Before the cake was served, however, we had to pose for the obligatory snap of a camera that would freeze the moment in time. If it were not for that now grayed and tattered black-and-white photo, I would have no memory of that day. Now as I stare at the photo I can recall the names of each child.

Television was just entering our homes and it was an “Ozzie and Harriet” world that came up on the little screen. The subliminal message was that all nuclear families were cheerful, loving and content, not explosive mine fields. The television families had a mother who stayed at home, did the laundry cheerfully, cleaned house spotlessly and cooked healthy tasty meals flawlessly. Supper was served when father came home from a hard day at work.

The reality in our own homes did not match the images we saw on t.v. in 1956. Our mothers were mostly lonely, bored and frustrated women. Many did not like raising children or cooking or doing laundry. They were prone to unexplainable fits of violence or tears. Few of our fathers came home with a smile. For at least half of my friends, the nuclear family had a mushroom cloud lifting from the dinner table. Each of the children at my birthday party that year held a secret truth that they had been cautioned never to discuss.

Secrets have a way of leaking out, however, and our mothers talked to each other within the hearing of our curious little ears. Some secrets were not revealed until we were adults. Adam’s father was an alcoholic who regularly beat and terrorized his wife and children. Sherry’s father sexually abused her older sister and he would later do the same to her. Other children had secrets we never learned about. We all kept our distance from Philip.  He took out the rage he felt by bullying anyone weaker or smaller than he. We all thought we were the only ones who did not have a perfect family and that our home lives were the oddity.