Ellie traced the outline of her name on the lined paper lying on her desk. E-L-L-I-E. The morning bell had sounded. The twitter of five-year-olds settling into morning kindergarten rose and fell from pockets of the room.
“Good, morning, children,” welcomed Mrs. Alexander. “Does anyone have a birthday today?”
“I do!” shouted Stephen.
“Me too!” said Ellie, impulsively.
“Are you sure, Ellie?” Mrs. Alexander remembered vaguely Ellie’s birthday celebration in the fall, six months earlier.
“Yes, really. It is.” Ellie knew she was fibbing. She could feel the fib on her skin and in her tummy. She didn’t know to say, “I was only kidding, but I wish it were.” She hadn’t learned yet how to squelch spontaneous outbursts for attention.
In Mrs. Alexander’s class all birthdays were celebrated with pictures of cakes, colored and decorated by the children. Ellie loved coloring and decorating her cake picture, but disliked having to give hers away to someone else, even if that was the reason for the drawing and coloring, to celebrate someone else. If it could be her birthday, she could keep her picture.
For Stephen she made chocolate cake with strawberries. For herself, she made a lemon cake with red rose buds. On the blackboard in the front of the room were Stephen’s and her name. S-T-E-P-H-E-N. E-L-L-I-E. She carefully copied Stephen’s name in purple above his cake. Her own name she wrote in green crayon.
Mrs. Alexander collected all the cake pictures. She would give them to Stephen and Ellie before the dismissal bell.
As the day continued, premonitions of dread and embarrassment seeped into Ellie’s thoughts. How would she deal with twenty-six colored cake pictures? What would she tell her mother when she got home?
Her classmates congratulated her. “Wait ’til you see the cake I made for you!” said Susan, her favorite classmate. “I made a chocolate cake for you,” said Peter who liked to ride bikes with her down Poppy Avenue. “Happy Birthday,” said shy Judy.
What would she say if her friends discovered her lie! The fib on her skin creeped into her neck. Her feet squirmed. Her eyes avoided Mrs. Alexander’s.
As she left school with the twenty-six cake pictures in a folder, she considered throwing them away, but she felt like everyone’s eyes were on her in the school halls and playground. I know, she thought, I’ll throw them out on the way home.
The walk home followed a short meandering street, up a set of stone steps through a neighborhood park, across Hillview Drive to Helen Avenue. The cake pictures grew heavier and heavier with each step. How could she throw away all the pretty cakes? But what could she say when she got home? She decided she would throw all but hers away. In the alley behind the houses on Helen Avenue were garbage cans. She would go home in the alley and discard the pictures.
As she walked through the alley, dogs barked. A neighbor was hanging out her wash on a line. “Hi, Ellie! Have a good day at school?” Ellie squeezed the birthday folder to her chest. She came to the garbage can behind the Brown’s garage. She put the birthday folder on the ground. When she reached for the can’s lid, the tin lid scraped and clattered. Suddenly dogs erupted in cacophonous barking and howling.
Ellie snatched up the folder and took off running toward home. She raced into her yard, threw open the basement door, and pounded upstairs and into the kitchen.
“Why, Ellie, what’s wrong?” asked her mother, Ruth.
“I hate those dogs.”
“You can have some butterscotch pudding after you change your clothes. Oh, what do you have here?” Ruth reached for the folder. The pictures fell onto the floor.
“Nothing, just some pictures we colored.” Ellie swept up the pictures with her hands.
“We all got cakes today. Everybody colored a cake for everyone so no one would be left out.”
“How nice.” Ruth took the pictures out of the folder and lay them on the kitchen table. “Look how pretty they are. Which one did you do?”
“This one. It’s a lemon cake.”
“That’s lovely. It looks delicious. Well, better change your clothes, Sweetie. Then come have some pudding.”
Ellie couldn’t shake free of the gnawing lies. The pudding felt like mud in her throat. She wanted to blurt out the truth but it remained stuck somewhere between her belly and her tongue. For years thereafter the memory stuck like a stone, colored with shame and embarrassment, a good curative for her partiality for exaggeration.
Then when Ellie was seventy, she told someone the story, someone other than her husband, who had long ago become accustomed to Ellie’s flights into confession. After all, her husband had his own stories: locking a brother up in a rabbit cage and target practicing in the kitchen.
The story at first seemed about shame, about seeking redemption, the child within the aging adult looking for absolution by finally telling the truth, which all sounded utterly ridiculous now that her own children had fibbed their way through childhood and adolescence and recovered to be adults. One could only laugh at guilt howling like barking dogs in an alleyway.
What if the mother had known? What if the story was not about teaching a child not to lie, but about loving someone so much a person got a free pass upon which to start anew?
Two versions: shaming or loving. Which one happened in this story? And how would the outcome have differed if the mother had said, “Oh, Sweetie, don’t lie. You know better! No one in our family lies! You take those pictures back tomorrow to Mrs. Alexander and tell the truth! Wait ’til your father hears this!”
I venture to say, this is how love works. Since we are all flawed, we can help one another be better people by going forward, not backward, not faulting, not blaming, and by feeding, kindly feeding and trusting that nourishment works better than punishment.