How a Childhood Birthday Party Led to How I Parent

By Cher Finver

June 29, 2021

How hard can it be? I remember thinking. If I had paused for just one second, I would have remembered that I was still trying to master riding a bicycle at eleven years old. Why did I think roller skating would be any easier? I was just so delighted to be invited to a birthday party that I wasn’t thinking about the consequences of strapping on roller skates at all.

“You don’t know how to skate,” my mother reminded me as she yawned and took a long, slow drag off her cigarette. When I told my mom about the party she wasn’t impressed.

“I know, but I’ll learn. My friends will help me,” I replied. The smoke always stung my eyes, but in 1986, if you lived with a smoker, you learned to just deal with it.

“You have friends?” she asked condescendingly. Ouch.

“Yeah, mom, the Korean girls from our complex.” If my mom had been paying any attention to my life, she would have known this. “It’s this Saturday, eleven a.m.”

The time of the party concerned me. Around eleven on the weekends, Mom was usually rolling out of bed after a night out partying with my latest stepdad while I babysat my little brother. Maybe she felt a little guilt, or perhaps she wasn’t as hungover as she looked because what she said next surprised me.

“Fine. I can take you. But do not call me asking to come home early because you don’t know how to skate!” Mom took out her frustration on the cigarette butt she was trying to extinguish.

I spent the rest of the week counting down the hours until the party and putting together my outfit. You may ask yourself why I did not make time that week to practice. I would have, but I did not own a pair of skates. I knew we were on food stamps and that Christmas time was always a burden, so I wasn’t going to ask my mom for a pair.

I knew we were on food stamps and that Christmas time was always a burden, so I wasn’t going to ask my mom for a pair of skates.

Finally, the day of the party arrived. I slammed the car door shut as Mom once again reminded me that I couldn’t skate and made me promise not to call her for an early pick-up. As a child, I would not say that I oozed confidence, but for some reason, I had it the day of the party. I walked in and was met by the blaring sounds of Madonna and the unmistakable smell of butter-soaked popcorn. My stomach rumbled as a reminder that I had not had breakfast.

I arrived exactly seventeen minutes late. As I walked past the table of birthday gifts, I was relieved to see so many, as that meant my lack of a present would hopefully go unnoticed. As I approached the roller rink, I saw that my friends were already skating. I took a deep breath.

I can do this! I told myself as I laced up my skates as tight as I could. But when I stood up from a seated position, my feet quickly rolled out from under me and I fell hard on my butt. Well, I’ll be more careful, I thought as I made a failed second attempt, and a third. Eventually I was able to stand, but it took a while. Considering I had suffered severe inner-ear issues since early childhood, I guess it made sense that it took me a few tries to find my balance. I hated it when my mother was right.

Preteen girls can be mean, selfish, and immature. This was a fact I learned when not one of my so-called “friends” came to my aid. With just a few songs to go before pizza would be served, I slowly made my way onto the rink with the help of the nearby railing for support. One of the girls grabbed my free hand and flung me to the center of the rink. As Duran Duran loudly proclaimed they were “hungry like the wolf”, I wondered how hard you can hit your head on hardwood floors before you need to go to the ER.

The confidence I had walked in with dwindled with each fall. As the other kids enjoyed lunch, I dug in my denim skirt pocket for a few quarters and timidly picked up the pay phone.

“I can’t understand you when you’re crying, Cher,” Mom calmly stated when she answered.

I relayed what I could to my mother of the situation as the pounding in my head and the aching in my body intensified.

“I told you. I’m not coming to pick you up early.”

“Please, Mom. I’m sorry, I should have listened. I want to come home. I’m too nauseous for pizza and cake.”

“No. I’ll be there in one hour as planned.” As she hung up, I could hear my stepdad and his friends in the background.

I spent the remainder of my time on the sidelines as my “friends” ate cake, oohed and aahed over gifts, and, of course, skated. When my mom arrived, my nightmare was finally over. I got in the family car, rode home in silence and never spoke to my mother about that day. Ever.

A little back story: I only had been living in Las Vegas for about a year when I got that birthday party invitation. I hadn’t developed any deep friendships because I had no choice but to keep to myself because my family had a secret. My mom had kidnapped me and taken me from my home in New York to Nevada in 1985.

My mother lied to me my entire life, always telling me my dad was a “bad man who did bad things.” Growing up I was told we had to move and change schools often, otherwise my dad would find me. I would learn as an adult that, in fact, we were constantly moving because the FBI was looking for her. (There is a lot to this story, much of which I explore in my 2017 memoir, But You Look So Good and Other Lies.)

As for my so-called friends at the roller rink that day, they are unnamed in this story for a reason. The birthday girl would go on to get together the one and only boy in our school I had my little adolescent heart set on. Every kid wants to fit in growing up, I certainly did. I should have told those girls I couldn’t skate. If they were real friends, it wouldn’t have mattered. But that was just one painful day from what was a very confusing and difficult childhood. As for my mother, looking back I know now that she abused me in many ways.

I now have a daughter who is a young adult, and there have been many times that I’ve berated her in my mind, echoing the criticism weathered from my mother: I told you so! Why didn’t you listen to me in the first place!? The summer of 2013 comes to mind as a perfect example, the day my daughter called asking to be picked up from that year’s Vans Warped Tour an hour or two after being dropped off. I did not hesitate and was on the road minutes later as the story I just told you replayed in my mind.

Las Vegas, Nevada is known for many things, one being the scorching summer temperatures. The day my daughter called, it was 110 degrees, and the concert was being held on the blacktop of a vast parking lot. I knew she was going to call me. It was too hot for anybody to be standing for hours with no shade. I told her this many times. I also understood her desire to be with her friends. And I could never deny her that, no matter how much it may have inconvenienced me.

My childhood shaped how I parent on a daily basis. I can be both right and annoyed, and still show up for my child, no questions asked—literally and figuratively.

Photo by Matheus Frade.