This was my first birthday away from home, and I missed my mom, my sister, and most certainly the special cake my mother always made for my birthday. Since getting to college that year, I would watch jealously as the other freshmen received packages from their parents on their birthdays – and even on ordinary days. Instead of feeling thrilled about my coming eighteenth birthday, I felt empty. I wished my mom would send me something, too, but I knew that she couldn’t afford presents or the postage. She had done her best with my sister and me – raising us by herself. The simple truth was, there just was never enough money.
But that didn’t stop her from filling us with dreams. “You can be anything you want to be,” she would tell us. “Politicians, dancers, writers – you just have to work for it, you have to get an education.”
For a long time, because of my mother’s resourcefulness, I didn’t realize that we were poor. She did so much with so little. She took care of our house, practically nursing the forty-year-old pipes and oil furnace to keep us warm throughout the cold winters. She clothed and fed us. She found ways to get us scholarships so that we could take violin and piano lessons from some of the best teachers in Philadelphia. She never missed an opportunity to have a tête-à-tête with our schoolteachers, and she attended all our plays and musical performances.
My mother had high hopes for my sister and me. She saw the way out of poverty for us was education. We didn’t play all the time with the other children on the street, or stay out late on the porch laughing and talking with our neighbors. We were inside doing our homework and reading books. She sat with us while we did our work and taught us how to learn what she didn’t know by plowing through encyclopedias or visiting the library. She never bought anything that she could make herself, and only for emergencies did she tap the spotless credit she maintained at family-run bank based in the city center.
Thanks to my mom’s sacrifices and big dreams, I’d made it to the Ivy League: Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Yet I was afraid that I wouldn’t measure up to the other students. They seemed to exude confidence and the smell of money. I felt very lost and far away sometimes.
As I daydreamed, there was a knock on the door. My roommate opened it to find a deliveryman asking for me. He handed her a large rectangular box, which she carefully placed on the desk near my bed. I opened it and inside was a vanilla cake with chocolate frosting. In icing were the words: Happy Birthday, Sande! Love, Mom and Rosalind. I felt as if my mother were right there hugging me close. How had she managed to afford it?
I ran out to the hall and knocked on my dorm mates’ doors. “Birthday cake,” I called. As I cut cake for the ten students gathered in my room, then watched their faces as they ate, I didn’t need to eat to feel both full and rich inside.