Happy Birthday Teresa Jane



Florence Witkop

Ross dropped wearily onto the couch. “We’re done.”

“Done enough.” There were still a few boxes here and there, but I could handle them. I was a stay-at-home mom until Teresa had a few years of school, a decision we’d made when she was born.

“I was afraid I’d not get a decent night’s sleep before starting my new job.” He wiggled his body and closed his eyes and breathed contentment. “Now I know I will and I need it. Moving is hard work and I look forward to a summer of catching up and doing absolutely nothing.”

“Don’t get too comfortable.”

He opened one eye. “Why not?”

“Teresa’s birthday is coming fast.” The birthday that meant she could start school. She was excited.


“So she wants a party.”

“Naturally. Five years is a milestone birthday.”

I sighed and repeated my previous statement one word at a time. Slowly. “She. Wants. A. Party.”

“Of course she does and I don’t see the problem.” He lay his head back and opened the other eye and stared at the ceiling.

“We just moved and don’t know anyone.”

“So?” He still didn’t get it.

“So parties normally involve guests and whom will we invite to Teresa’s party if we don’t know anyone?” I didn’t have to add that our little girl was turning into a social butterfly because she’d made that abundantly clear during the few years she’d been on earth. She loved people. Loved parties. Loved parties with wall to wall people.

“Oh dear.” He sat up, groaning at what the effort had cost his body. “A problem we’ll have to solve somehow.” He brightened. “We’ll convince her that a party with only family in attendance is the best kind of celebration.”

“Won’t work. I already tried.”

“Oh.” He slumped back to his former resting position and sighed. “Then you’re right. It’s a problem.” After a moment of thought, he almost smiled. “Which is why I’m glad I must concentrate on my new job in order to do a bang-up job of being the sole support of my family while you deal with the problem of Teresa’s birthday.”

“Won’t work, big guy. We’re in this together.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Okay. I had to try. But you’re right.” Silence lay long and heavy in the room. “We’ll figure it out. Somehow. We have to because we love Teresa and she loves parties.” That was the end of the discussion, not because we didn’t care but because neither of us could come up with a single solution to the problem of Teresa’s birthday.

But Ross was right in a way because, since I was a full-time homemaker and he did have to concentrate on making good at a brand new job, it was kind of up to me to figure out how to provide a party filled with people for a little girl when we didn’t know a single person in our new city.

I spoke with Teresa about it the next morning after we’d finished planting a row of beans. “Honey, you do know that we are new here.”

“Yep. New house. New yard. New garden.” That we’d been working on until deciding to take a break. “I like gardens.” Almost as much as she liked parties.

“The thing is, your old friends are pretty far away.”

“I know.”

“It’s too long of a drive for them to come for a visit.”

“I know.” She rolled her eyes. “I fell asleep in the car.”

“Too far for them to come to your party.”

“Yep.” Teresa the four-year-old clean freak, washed her hands with the hose, inspected the dirt still beneath her fingernails, and washed them again. “Too far.”

“So it’ll be a small party.”

Her nose wrinkled. “I don’t like little parties. I want a big one.” Her blue eyes turned towards me in complete confidence. “We have to make a big cake because lots of people will come. Because it’s my special birthday.” She dried her hands and led the way back to the new garden-in-progress to get them dirty all over again. “Because I’ll be old enough to go to school.”

This time, she informed me, we’d plant flowers instead of stuff to eat because she loved flowers, especially pink ones, as I sighed and wondered how I’d failed so spectacularly to get across to her that no one would come to her party.

That afternoon, when we were both relatively clean and fed and didn’t want to get dirty all over again working in the garden, she asked if she could take a walk. “It’s safe. You said so.”

We had said that. When we were looking for a house, as soon as the real estate agent learned we had a small child, she said she knew the perfect place and she was right. We were at the end of a cul-de-sac and the only cars that came or went belonged to people who lived there and they drove slowly and carefully, as did we once we’d moved in.

They were our neighbors, the ones we’d not yet met, and though I looked forward to knowing them, the weather hadn’t been good and most of them worked and there just hadn’t been the right occasion to meet anyone. So now I sighed and thought about Teresa walking in a strange place.

“I want to see what the old people are doing,” she said when the silence had gone on too long.

“Old people?”

She pointed through the front window to the rather large circle of land at the end of the cul de sac. I’d assumed it would be grass but as we went to the window to see better, we saw a group of people planting things much as we’d been planting a garden in our back yard. Most of them had gray hair and no one seemed in a hurry. Teresa’s ‘old’ people.

We didn’t know them. On the other hand, their presence gave a patina of safety to a small child’s walk. “If you don’t go too far. When you reach the end of the block, instead of crossing the street, you turn around and come back. Then, when you reach our house you come inside and tell me.”

She considered that for a moment. “If I do, then after telling you can I walk around the other side of the circle all the way to the street and then back? Around the old people?”

“Yes, if you do exactly as I said.”

She nodded shortly and grabbed a bottle of water that she strapped to her shoulders because this was a major expedition for an almost-five-year-old girl. She made sure her pink sneakers with lights on them were tied tight and that she had sun-screen on and a hat for shade. All the things major expeditions required. Then she left and I watched her through the window.

She did as she’d been told. She walked in the precise center of the sidewalk past the grassy center of the cul de sac and all the way to the end of the street and stood there for a minute or so watching cars pass by and a dog play across the street. Then she turned smartly, like a soldier, and came back, still in the middle of the sidewalk, until she reached our new house. She came inside and looked a question at me. “Was I good?”

“You were good.”

She took a long drink of water and smoothed her pink jeans that matched her pink sneakers with lights. “So can I go around the old people and go to the street that way?”

She’d circle that grassy center and continue on along the other side. Then, if she repeated what she’d done on her first walk, she’d turn around and come back, once again around the center full of senior citizens planting a garden, and then when she’d fully rounded the circle, she’d be home again.

So I agreed. “You can but stay on the sidewalk.” I stooped to her level so she’d know that what I would say next was important. “But you can’t cross the street to visit with them.”

She was disappointed. “I can’t?”

“There could be cars and you know you can’t cross streets unless you are holding someone’s hand.” Were we too protective? Probably, but we’d decided it was better to be safe than sorry and who wanted a child to grow up too fast anyway? Keep her little as long as possible.

She clearly wanted to visit the gardeners but resignation showed in her face. “Okay.”

She trudged outside again on her second expedition in one day. All the way around the circle and as she walked, the gardeners in the center waved to her and called out.

When she came home, reproach was clear in her face. “I didn’t cross the street. They wanted me to, they called and everything, but I didn’t.” I told her I was proud of her.

We went shopping for her birthday party the next day. I tried to limit the number of purchases to what three people would use but she’d have none of it. Besides which they all came in packages of a dozen or more. And she insisted on several packages of each. Hats. Noise makers. Party favors. And lots and lots of crepe paper.

As we passed the stationary aisle, she tugged at my hand and pointed. “I need invitations too.” My heart sank. One thing she’d not need. But she was so adamant that I bought them because I was afraid that if I didn’t, my normally sensible almost-five-year-old daughter would have a meltdown in the middle of the stationary aisle.

That afternoon, we planned a birthday party complete with how to decorate the living and dining rooms and where to place the cake on the table. And we wrote out invitations. I did the writing and she signed her name because she knew how, along with knowing her colors and numbers and pretty much everything I’d not known at her age. Then I said brightly, “I’ll put them on the top shelf so they won’t get lost.” Where, hopefully, being out of sight, she’d forget they existed.

“Okay,” she said happily. “We don’t need them today.” She skipped to the door. “We can give them to people later.” I breathed a sigh of relief and we had ice cream for dessert that night and watched movies till past her bedtime because I cannily figured that would help her forget the invitations that would never be used.

The day after the party planning day and two days before her actual birthday we made her birthday cake. “Because it’s almost my birthday and we need to be ready.” It was white with pink frosting and we made pink cookies to match and put the cake on a lovely cake stand from my mother to see how it would look during the actual party. “Like you used to have for your birthdays,” she said as I almost cried and didn’t know whether it was from remembering those long ago days or because of the upcoming birthday that was looking more and more like a disaster.

When there was just one day to go Teresa informed me she wanted to take another walk and that she knew the rules so I didn’t have to watch from the door. “Besides,” she said with a sweeping gesture to the senior citizens who were almost done with their garden in the center of the cul de sac. “If anyone tries to take me they’ll stop him.” She finished with the unassailable, “I’m almost five. I’m not a little girl any more.”

So I did a bit of my own gardening in the back yard and managed not to check on her at all though I gave a huge sigh of relief when I heard the front door open and close and soon after the kitchen door open, after which she joined me. But she didn’t help because she’d worn her favorite dress, the one with flowers all over it and puffy sleeves, along with her shiny black Mary Jane shoes. “I don’t want to get them dirty because I’m going to wear them tomorrow at my birthday party.”

I rose with a sigh and we adjourned to the living room from which we could see the senior citizens packing up their gardening things. As they left, they waved our way and Teresa waved back through the picture window. “They are done. They told me so.”

“You talked with them?”

“Of course. They are planting flowers and I like flowers, especially pink ones and they said pink is the prettiest color.”

I sighed again. What else could I do as I also waved while the gardeners walked to their respective houses around the cul de sac and along the street to the main thoroughfare. “Some day we’ll get to  know them,” I said. “They are our neighbors.” Teresa nodded and waved to the last senior citizen disappearing into his home two doors down.

Teresa’s birthday dawned bright and clear and I wished I could stick my head beneath my pillow and pretend it had never come. But I couldn’t do that. Teresa was beside our bed and jumping up and down with eagerness to get this milestone day started. Ross and I looked at each other and girded ourselves for the tragedy that was about to happen.

Teresa didn’t notice. She hummed and sang and danced as we decorated the house. The whole house. She danced as she put the cake in its place of honor in the center of the dining room table and managed to not drop it. She looked at the clock and every few minutes asked if it was one o’clock in the afternoon yet because that’s when the party would begin. She knew a lot for her age but she still found time daunting.

“Honey, wouldn’t it be fun to just have a three-person party?” I asked brightly. “Your dad, you and me?”

She stopped moving long enough to stare at me as if I had two heads. “I want people at my party.” She gestured theatrically. “Lots of people.”

There was nothing to say, no way of preparing her for the heartbreak that was about to happen. We watched with dread as the clock ticked inevitably towards one o’clock and doom. I wished we didn’t have a grandfather clock that made all kinds of noise every hour, but we did.

One o’clock rolled around. Teresa was a ball of motion. We were trying desperately to figure out how to deal with the trauma that was on the horizon.

Then the doorbell rang.

Ross and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. “A delivery? From her grandparents, perhaps?” Except they’d already sent presents that were on a small table in the corner of the dining room.

Ross answered. Three elderly people stood in the open doorway, smiling. I recognized them though it took a moment to place where I’d seen them. Then I remembered. They were part of the senior citizen gardening contingent. And they each carried a pink, blooming plant.

“For Teresa.”

“For her birthday.”

“Because she likes pink.”

Teresa zoomed around us and welcomed our guests before we could figure out what was happening. She pointed to the table with her grandparents’ presents. “Put them there.” Good manners surfaced. “But you didn’t have to bring anything. You could have cake anyway.” She thought hard. “Because I invited you.”

My look went to the top shelf where I’d put the invitations. It was empty.

I remembered that walk the previous day. The one I didn’t watch and realized that before leaving the house our almost five year old daughter must have stood on the chair and then the small table that was beside the shelves and got them down all by herself. And delivered them.

The doorbell rang again. Another contingent of senior citizens, this one accompanied by a little boy of about Teresa’s age. “Hi, Teresa.” A package was thrust at her. “This is for you and I figured you wouldn’t mind if I brought my grandson. He lives five houses down and has been dying to meet you.”

Ross and I stood in stunned amazement as two more groups arrived. These weren’t senior citizens but I recognized neighbors from seeing them come and go during the day. And two children were with them who soon were added to the growing group of kids who’d all wanted to meet the new kid on the block.

Soon the house was bursting to the seams with people of all ages and every one of them knew Teresa because, when she took that walk the previous day, she’d gone up to every single house and either given them an invitation in person or left one on their doorstep. And they were all laughing and saying how nice it was to meet us at last. And to have been invited to a birthday party.

I took Ross aside. “We need more cake. And ice cream. And pop.”

“Stall them with some kind of getting-acquainted game while I make a grocery run. I’ll be fast.”

So I did. Or rather so did Teresa, who proved to be an excellent hostess. One of our neighbors, a youngish man with a scraggly beard and expensive jeans said he’d vote for her. She looked puzzled and so did I. “When she runs for President.” He sagely checked out the assembled group. “Which I have no doubt she’ll do some day. Considering what she did here today there’s no limit to what she’ll accomplish as an adult”

Ross returned with enough decadent food for an army and we proceeded with Teresa’s birthday party. We all sang Happy Birthday and the sound sent the birds in the back yard away in terror at all the noise.

We didn’t mind. We were just glad our daughter was having the kind of fifth birthday party she’d so badly wanted. Even though she had to arrange it herself. And, yes, we agreed later as we wearily but happily sank onto the couch and closed our eyes in the ecstasy of relaxation at last and let the anxiety of the past week or so drain away, she just might be President some day.


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