—I remember the last time that my family celebrated my birthday was when I turned five. They organized a party in our house with a lot of children. In the middle of the birthday cake they put a big number 5 that had been used on another cake – the one that my grandparents cut when they celebrated 50 years of happy marriage.
That year, 1989, was the last year of parties and celebrations of that type in my house. It was also the last year that the little boxes of treats strategically stacked behind my seat at breakfast were full of little cookies, candies and ladyfingers.
I didn’t understand what had happened until several years later.* From this later perspective, I came to understand in my own flesh what my grandparents and mother felt, with their suffering and frustration when my sixth birthday came around and I posed the question: “And the party?” Even then, I could see the sadness on the faces of my grandparents and my mother on seeing my disappointment at the empty boxes. Thanks to the fact that I was an unusually understanding child, I didn’t make them feel any worse, but accepted their explanation regarding the impossibility of celebrating it as we had before.
I relived these things from a different perspective when it was my younger cousin’s turn to turn five. Then, it was my turn to attend a day that proved as painful as it was unforgettable.
My aunt, one of the many Cubans whose only income is her salary, summoned all the resources within her reach. She managed to organize a photo session for the morning and a modest “cake” for the afternoon, to which she invited my little cousin’s two friends that live close to their apartment. However, the resources that my aunt tapped were based on favors. As a favor the photographer was going to come to the house following a paid session and use the shots that were left; as a favor a pastry chef was going to give her a cake made from the leftovers ingredients of another that had been ordered and paid for; and as a favor a neighbor was going to lend her a sound system.
The only concrete item that she was able to obtain was the ingredients to make up a pasta salad: spaghetti, chicken sausages, potatoes, eggs and salad oil. In the morning, my little cousin woke up full of excitement and let her hair be arranged without protesting. She dressed up in a used, but still very new-looking outfit that had been given her by a friend of my aunt, and she sat down on the sofa in the living room, keeping quiet in order not to get sweaty while she waited for the photographer to come.
By lunch time, my aunt decided to let her play on the floor, since it was clear that the photographer had stood them up. Two hours before the cake was to be cut, my aunt’s husband returned from the bakery with altered blood pressure and no cake. And at the time that my cousin’s grandparents arrived, the neighbor was complaining that the sound system had stopped working. My aunt began passing out the cold salad while her husband managed to get an old tape recorder working.
We listened to cassettes of children’s music and played on the floor. The eyes of my cousin were filled with a happy amazement at having us all there on the floor with her, eating the pasta salad and playing her favorite game.
After a while we heard music coming from the apartment of one of her other friends and we could see flashes coming from a camera. A little later this little girl came to invite my cousin to her birthday party, but my cousin said that she couldn’t go because she was already attending the best party in the world.
At that moment I felt on my face the same expression that my grandparents and my mother had worn the day of my sixth birthday when I told them that it didn’t matter that they couldn’t throw a party for me, that remembering the other parties was enough, the best parties that any kid could ever have.
*[Editor’s Note: The 70s and 80s was a period of relative prosperity in Cuba, and during these years Cubans received a stipend to celebrate birthdays, weddings and other special occasions. By 1990, the year before the Soviet Union dissolved; the Cuban economy began a sharp decline and entered the “special period.” Such celebrations became very difficult for people to afford. Today, although many things have improved, such parties are still a challenge for the many Cubans who have only their salaries to live on.]