“Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away.” ~ Paul Simon
I have a picture of the Valentine birthday party my parents threw for me when I turned six-years-old. It is a day that will live in my personal infamy.
Daddy took the photo with a Kodak Mama made him buy especially for the occasion. The photograph showed ten small bodies seated in a circle on our living room floor. Mama made me a red velvet jumper and a white ruffled blouse for the party. I wore shiny black patent leather Mary Jane’s and plain white socks on little feet that were stuck straight out in front of me. Daddy was no Ansel Adams, so he simply snapped the picture, feet and all. My Mary Jane’s look big enough in that photo to fit a kangaroo.
We balanced limp paper plates on our laps and shoveled strawberry ice cream and Red Velvet cake in our mouths. Only one kid out of the entire bunch still sported front teeth.
The dining room table in the background of the picture was draped with Mama’s good white tablecloth. She had cut red hearts out of construction paper and I helped put them together with paste that tasted like spearmint. She scattered and straight-pinned them all over the tablecloth. There was crepe paper, red of course, stretched and curled and Scotch-taped to the chandelier, and from the looks of it, anything else within reach.
We giggled and smiled as Daddy took the first picture and we grinned on cue for the next one. It was only after Daddy said, ‘Okay, kids. One more’ that things began to go downhill. Daddy had an obsessive streak that sneaked out every time he got a new gadget and the Kodak was his flavor of the week. He should have stopped while he was ahead.
Stewart Hill, the youngest of the party guests said, “I don’t feel so good.” Daddy kept fiddling with the Kodak.
“Just a minute, Stewart,” Daddy muttered. “Just one more picture.”
“Yessir, but I feel real bad.” Stewart turned a little greener with every click of the Kodak.
Stewart was constantly teased about the heavy glasses he wore that were always slipping down toward the end of his nose or cocked over to the side. His glasses, sitting all catawampus like that, made him queasy and Red Velvet cake and too much ice cream was no help. Daddy didn’t get it because he was too enamored with his new toy.
Stewart moaned out loud and threw up.
His paper plate of Red Velvet Cake flew in the air and landed on top of Ann McGee’s head. What spewed out of his mouth headed, like a guided missile, straight for my new black patent leather Mary Jane’s.
In less than a nanosecond, Stewart Hill transformed my birthday party into Hell’s Kitchen.
Ann screamed bloody murder; Stewart heaved and threw up again. Billy Fred Rivers jumped up and down and pointed to Stewart whose face had turned key lime green. Johnny Grant was last seen running, head down, toward the front door and Gail Bratton, the epitome of ladylikeness even at age six, pointedly averted her eyes and pretended nothing was wrong.
I stared at my feet, gagged, and tried not to lose what I had eaten of the heart-shaped Red Velvet birthday cake. The other kids took turns jumping around the room like peeper frogs in a summer rain.
Mama tripped over the coffee table trying to reach Stewart before he threw up again. She said a string of unladylike words that six-year-old kids feel compelled to repeat, but Daddy just stood in the middle of the chaos holding onto his Kodak as if it were the Holy Grail.
He snapped out of his stupor long enough to play the Pied Piper in order to lead hysterical kids outside for some much needed fresh air and a wild game of pin the tail on the donkey. In our case, pin the heart on the cupid … an idea Mama dreamed up while going through a creative phase.
After all my gifts had been opened, the party began to wind down. Mama announced to everyone that there was still plenty of cake left if anybody wanted to take some home. Nobody did. Even now, my stomach flips up and down when I see Red Velvet cake.
The next day Mama had to have the living room rug dry cleaned due to the ten plates of ice cream and cake stomped into the wool by ten sets of tiny feet.
Daddy never got the hang of taking pictures, but many years later my brother fished the dusty old Kodak out of the closet. He developed the long forgotten snapshots Daddy took at my birthday party — or, as it has become known in our family — the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.