11th Birthday by
100
(133 Stories)

Prompted By Betrayal

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My mother was still in a deep depression, too tranqed out on Miltowns to take care of me, much less plan a birthday party. Dad owned a car dealership; worked six days and two nights a week. He cared but just wasn’t there. We had been in the neighborhood 2 1/2 months and I didn’t have any friends except for the Pearlmans, two doors down. Ralph was my age and we were friendly, but boys and girls didn’t really socialize in 6th grade. I played a bit with his younger sister Nancy. Still in 4th grade, that was too big an age difference to consider being close friends. Yet, I was frequently sent over to their house, as my mother couldn’t deal with me.

Aunt Stella, mother’s sister from Cleveland had come in to care for my brother and me, as mother spent most of her time in bed. Stella and I would clash over my clothing choices. I noticed that the girls in my school no longer wore tights. They now wore knee socks. I was fighting for psychic survival and demanded to wear them too. She called me a spoiled brat and said knee socks weren’t warm enough in winter. She just didn’t understand.

My 11th birthday was December 10, 1963. Mother’s oldest sister, my Aunt Ann, lived in greater Detroit. She was very busy with her clubs and social life. She decided what sort of birthday party I should have. Having something at the house was out of the question and evidently I was too old for something with entertainment. So she decided on a luncheon at her city club, the Great Lakes Club, for me and a few girls from my class at school. Some had been generous and their mothers had me to their home for lunch during the month after the semester started but before our house (which we built) was finished and we moved in on October 1. Others were the queen bees of 6th grade society. So I’m sure Sara, Ruth, Kitty, and Julie were there.

The Featured photo shows me dressed for the luncheon. You can see the bad hair cut, pulled back with the little bow. Well-scrubbed face, before braces. I always took off my glasses for photos, but put cat’s eye glasses on for full effect. I liked my red velvet outfit, but it was hopelessly immature compared to what the other girls wore. And those dreaded tights and MaryJane shoes. I still look like a little girl, which I was. Due to overcrowding in the Detroit schools, I was only half-way through 5th grade in June, and skipped ahead, so was the youngest in my class. When I look at the 6th grade class photos, the other girls look so much more mature. Their mothers groomed them to be. My mother was in bed, oblivious to the world around her.

The other girls arrived at the Great Lakes Club and were greeted by my aunt, who was a superb hostess and knew how to make people feel at ease and carry on conversation. We were all seated at a round table and the girls chatted easily with one another and with my aunt. AND NO ONE SAID A WORD TO ME. DURING THE ENTIRE LUNCHEON. The party remains memorable to this day for that intractable sense of loneliness and isolation. The others didn’t even have good enough manners to pretend to care that the party was for me, the birthday girl. They totally ignored me. I was crushed and came away bitter from the entire experience. I don’t think I commented on it to my aunt. I thanked her for giving me such a nice luncheon. I knew she tried to make up to me what was missing in my life, but this wasn’t it.

So who betrayed me? The girls who couldn’t even pretend to be my friends for a few hours that Saturday afternoon? My mother’s mental health? Each of my aunts for failing to recognize how miserable I was and connect with that in any meaningful way? In some ways, all of the above, though I don’t blame my aunts, as they tried to do what they could to help out a lousy situation. And the mental health profession has come a long since 1963. Perhaps I betrayed myself for not being stronger and able to care for myself. I was a terribly shy, sensitive kid.

Now I fear that social media has made forms of bullying and isolating the less popular girls even more prevalent. The stories of girls who commit suicide because of social media pressure are everywhere. I wonder how I would have survived had I come of age in this era. People mature at vastly different rates. They don’t deserve to be mocked or isolated for that, but those are difficult lessons to learn when one is in the midst of it. It DOES get better, but it can be excruciating to live through, particularly without a strong mother figure or a few good friends.

I did make a friend that year. She and I would be friends for the rest of my years in the Royal Oak school system, but she wasn’t at that luncheon. By 8th grade I had a few friends and once into high school, the world opened up. It really did get better. I just had to hang on and live through it.

I spent a lifetime working to excel to attract praise, only now realizing that it is a substitute for the love and affection, which I so craved. The deep wounds healed, but I will always bear the scars.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: depressed mother, Aunt Ann, ignored at party
Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. jshutkin says:

    What a sad, sad story, Betsy. Particularly since, as you note, you still bear the scars of not attracting praise. Though glad that your excellence has been able to finally shine through.

    Forget blaming yourself, though. I would blame those mean girls. And, perhaps, vicariously, their parents as well for how they were raised — though, being a parent myself, I am prone to give other parents a bit of a break for their children’s bad behavior, especially the age-appropriate kind.

    But, again, what your story really highlights so well is that these acts of betrayal not only do damage at the moment, but can have such lasting effects as well. And bravo (brava?) for your bravery in sharing this!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I’ve discovered that it seems to be a universally difficult time of life for all girls, John. Some just navigate it with more aplomb than I did. I’m sure that having socially adept mothers can help. Mine wasn’t capable, so that made my passage all the more difficult. It also made me very attuned to my own children’s social shyness and made me want to help wherever I could. The situations either make us grow or crush us. I was not defeated.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Betsy, your story brought tears to my eyes. In addition to struggling with a depressed mother at a young age, you had to confront a true betrayal by a group of middle school mean girls, on your birthday no less. Your mother and your aunts deserved forgiveness. Having gone through mean girl behaviors myself, with my daughters, and now with my granddaughters, I could empathize with the hurt and pain as I read your story. And you are right about social media having made this even worse.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. The more I see of life, the more I believe that those middle years of 6,7 and 8th grade are very tough years for all girls. Mine was magnified by our move and my mother’s depression, so inability to help me navigate the terrain. The excellent movie “Eighth Grade”, out last summer, covers some of the same ground. We saw its star, Elsie Fisher, speak at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last month. She said she really was in 8th grade when she made the film and life was duly strange for her. She is now in 10th grade and so much better. So I think it is universal, even for successful actresses.

  3. Suzy says:

    Oh Betsy, so sad! I had some pretty mean girls at my school, but no one who would have been so rude as to ignore the birthday girl at her party! That takes it to a whole new level. Thank you for sharing your story, and I’m glad that it did get better by high school. For me it didn’t really get better until college, which I always refer to as my “ugly duckling into swan” experience.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Suzy, as I mention in another comment, I think these years were universally difficult for girls. Just some coped better than others. I had a particularly tough time for a few years, but things did get better and I can really relate to your “ugly duckling to swan” experience. Mine happened when I got out of braces and got contact lenses. That helped me so much!

  4. Marian says:

    Betsy, this is such a painful story, but resonates with all females with memories of middle school. It was so sad that your mother and aunt couldn’t really be there for you, especially at a time when you felt so “different.” I had to smile at the tights vs. knee socks, though, because in my school it was just the opposite, and my mother forced me to wear knee socks instead of tights. Also, I had nearly reached my full height and adult weight by age 11, and girls’ clothes looked ridiculous but women’s clothes weren’t right either. I guess no one felt very comfortable.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I don’t know how tall you are, Marian, but my FULL height was 5′ 1/2″ (I’m shrinking already and am now below 5′!) I was carded at liquor stores well into my 20s (when the drinking age was 18), so I cut off my long hair in an attempt to look older. Everyone always said that this looking younger than my real age would be a blessing at some point and I guess now, at the age of 66, it is. When I was in tech sales and calling on customers while in my 20s and 30s…not so much! One liquor store I go to now cards everyone. I show my Medicare card!

  5. Marian says:

    Well, I was 5’5″ in the 5th grade, 5’6″ in the 6th grade, and 5’7″ in the 7th grade and then stopped growing. It wasn’t fun, but by the end of high school, the boys had caught up, at least. I am now 5’5″ and wish for the extra 2 inches back! That’s a hoot, if I’m ever carded I’ll definitely show my Medicare card!

  6. A sad and terrible story, Betsy, but the depth of your reflection gave me a strong sense of the objectivity we can sometimes glean from difficult situations. Certainly, that was a cruel time in life, made all the more difficult by your move to a new school and social scene. And now, social media.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Charlie. Yes, I came out alive and have perspective on it now. As I and others have observed, it made me the person I am today, which isn’t a bad thing. But social media has made the social isolation and bullying of those years even more horrible and that is a frightening thing.

  7. John Zussman says:

    Kudos to Aunt Ann for stepping up to give you a party, but I wonder why she didn’t realize what was going on and make sure you were included in the interaction? Not that it would have been easy with a stuck-up mean-girl clique like that. The only thing I’d add is that middle school wasn’t much better for boys (or at least some boys). Congrats to us all for surviving it.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, Aunt Ann tried to help, but I think was more interested in making her luncheon a success than to notice the whole scenario. As I recall, the girls were quite enthralled with being at a fancy club and engaged with her a lot. I was lost in the background.

      Thank you for pointing out that middle school wasn’t an easy time for boys either. And yes, hooray for all of us who survived and thrived beyond it!

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