CBC Literary Prizes

The Birthday Party by Emily Stillwell

Emily Stillwell made the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for The Birthday Party.

2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist

Emily Stillwell is the author of the essay The Birthday Party. (Submitted by Emily Stillwell)

Emily Stillwell made the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for The Birthday Party.

She will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have her work published on CBC Books.

The winner of the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize was Jenny Boychuk for Slow Violence.

You can read The Birthday Party below.

This story contains difficult subject matter.

I settled into my seat, resting my feet on the wheel well. I began tracing my finger over the indents left by my handwritten name on the invitation. Excitement fluttered in my belly. I hadn't felt that in months. I was actually looking forward to something rather than dreading its arrival. I slipped the invitation back into the envelope before tucking it safely into a book in my backpack. With this move came the "Pickle Bus," an on-the-nose name for the short dark green bus. I have no idea why it wasn't yellow. I'm not quite sure I knew to ask back then, I'd only ever walked to school before.

We'd returned to Nova Scotia, except this time we were living in a small town. Small enough to have a "main" street. We'd stay only two years before picking up and moving again though I did not know this at the time. I'd been promised by my parents this was to be our forever home. Land had been bought, and a custom home built. 

I'd been living just outside of Toronto before the small town. This time, barely a year lapsed before movers came in again, stacking cardboard boxes and lining them up in neat rows in the moving van. It seemed pointless that we'd bothered to unpack at all.

The summer was always lonely after a move. My vacation usually consisted of playing alone while a heavy stone of anxiety grew in my chest as the first day at a new school loomed closer. The irony was that I loved school. I could sit in a classroom every day for the rest of my life learning. School was easy. Friendship is not always as simple. People are not easy. Being new is very scary. Moving made me fear the thing I loved the most.

There is a distinct noise to be heard when you stand quietly in a crowded playground. Loneliness.

Before long, the first day of school had come and gone. I mostly remember how I felt more than anything. Feeling anxious, with eyes squeezed tight to stop any tears. Standing there friendless, holding my mother's hand with white knuckles, I could feel my heart pulse in my burning red cheeks. Trying desperately to block out the rumble of happy kids playing. There is a distinct noise to be heard when you stand quietly in a crowded playground. Loneliness.

The fear would slowly dissipate and I'd settle in quickly enough. A few friendships made with the help of friendly gestures. I never liked the politics. I wanted to befriend people who were nice. It was a quality I learned to appreciate more with each move.

The day of the invitation was a day of acceptance for me. I was packing up my bag when the birthday girl handed it to me. She was one of the nice girls. It was the first, but not the last of the invitations received while at this school. I'd attend quite a few birthdays full of giggling girls running amok. This party would not be one of them. Only a few would attend.

The bus came to a stop in front of my house. I collected my things and ran for the open door. My mom was waiting outside for me.

"Leave your boots to dry please," she kissed the top of my head while grabbing the handle on the top of my backpack. I let my arms go limp so she could pull it off and place it on the floor. I hurriedly pulled off my rain boots, a Nova Scotia staple, and tucked them up against the wall.

"I'm invited to a birthday!" I couldn't contain my excitement. I was in my safe place. As soon as I crossed over that threshold into our mudroom I relaxed. I pried open my backpack, rummaging around through notebooks and pulled out the chapter book that had carefully protected the invitation.

"That's wonderful, sweetie!" Smiling she squeezed me against her hip with her arm. She opened the envelope, and read it over before placing it on the fridge with all the other important documents.

"I'll call tomorrow, and let them know you will be attending," she penciled it in on the calendar. I know what my mom's concerns were for the party. Who was going? Will there be other adults? Is this place safe? The only thing she cared about was my safety. She did extensive research with each move to keep us safe. Neighbourhoods, doctors, schools, et cetera.

I ran up to my room to take off my school clothes. It was a rule. No school clothes on your bed. I quickly changed, and jumped on the bed to cuddle with my cat who was all curled up in a ball. She'd been a gift not long after we'd arrived in the small town. A guaranteed friend. I told her all about the party and what I thought I'd wear. I asked her what she thought I should bring my new friend for her birthday. 

The next day at school I was eager to talk about the party with other girls in the class. It would feel so good to be included in something like a party. Except no one mentioned the party. No one. Not even the birthday girl. She quietly kept to herself while working on math problems. I was puzzled. At recess, no one said anything. I felt slightly brave with my new-found inclusion and decided to ask a group of girls about the party. 

"I'm not going to her birthday," one of the girls scoffed at me. "She would know not to invite me. I'd be surprised if you'd be allowed to go either." She turned her back to me and joined her friends playing jump rope on the pavement.

My cheeks burned. Why wouldn't I be allowed to go? What was wrong with her? She seemed nice? She was quiet, but she'd always been friendly to me. I felt stupid for being excited. I felt stupid for not knowing what everyone else seemed to know. 

For the rest of the day I felt defeated. I stopped planning what dress I'd wear and if I'd curl my hair. I tried not to stare at the birthday girl. I didn't want her to sense my sadness or worse, have to tell her people weren't going.

When I arrived home my mom was on the phone in the kitchen. When she caught sight of me at the door, she motioned for me to go upstairs. I made my way to the stairs, and sat quietly at the top so I could listen in on her conversation.

I felt stupid for being excited. I felt stupid for not knowing what everyone else seemed to know.

"No, of course my daughter will go," my mom said firmly to the person on the other end, "My only concern is for her safety. I don't care who they are and I can't believe that would even matter to people here."

I could tell she was trying to remain calm, but her voice was getting louder. She was pacing back and forth across the tiled floor.

"How about we go together," she said into the receiver. "Why would you let them dictate that to you. Who are they? What gives them the right to suggest her birthday is not important because of who she is, and where she lives? Does this happen often? Quite frankly, I'm disgusted."

My mom emphasized the last word with hard consonants. She was listening to the other person, breathing a few uh-huhs for acknowledgement.

"Really, there is no need to thank me. I'm honestly shocked that you weren't going to let your daughter go to this party! I'm not looking to lead a revolution here, but I can't support such blatant racism."

I heard my mom pull out the stool at her desk in the kitchen. She breathed deeply, "Listen, I already spoke to the poor girl's mother. She, much to my horror, wasn't surprised that not many girls were going to go to her daughter's birthday. That's disgraceful. She sounded so grateful that I'd called, and that made me feel sick. Her poor daughter shouldn't know how cruel the world can be at such a young age. So, here's the deal. We'll go together, and anyone else that has a problem with this party is free to call me." 

I heard the tapping of a pencil on the desk while she listened, and then a silent pause before my mom replied, "No, I don't care that I'm new in town and it might make me enemies, but I'd really rather not have people like that as friends. Okay. Okay. Good. Take care. No, stop thanking me. I'll see you tomorrow for coffee." My mom hung up the phone and let out a low growl.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I never thought I'd end up living in a small town with a bunch of narrow-minded bigoted hee-haw hicks. God, I need a cup of tea." I heard her turn on the tap to fill the kettle.

"I know you're hiding at the top of those stairs missy, so you might as well come sit with me," she hollered to me while she turned on the stove. I slunk down the stairs, before slumping into the chair she'd pulled out from the table.

"Look, I really don't know how to say this, so I'm going to be blunt," she paused, "The birthday party you've been invited to? Well, the young girl is Mi'kmaw. She lives on a First Nations Reserve just outside of this… just outside of this town". She censored her words.

I knew she was First Nations. I didn't know she lived on a Reserve. I knew basically what that meant, but I also didn't know why that mattered so much to people around here.

"Some people, my dear, have hateful, and hurtful feelings when it comes to people who are different than they are…"

"Like being racist?" I blurted out. The kettle whistled.

"Yes, my dear, like racism, and it's wrong," My mom got up, took the kettle off the stove before filling up her teapot, "There is nothing wrong with your friend being First Nations or living on a Reserve. You do understand that? We all live on Mi'kmaq land here if we're being truthful. Reserves are what…"

She stopped, and sat down in front of me with her mug. She was choosing her words carefully, stirring the milk into her steaming cup of tea. She always said I understood too much too young.

Don't ever, ever be afraid to do what is right. Don't be afraid to stand up for someone when you see injustice or to be someone's friend despite what others think.

"Reserves are special land that belong to First Nations people. There are some that are not accepting of this and it is wrong. You heard me on the phone. It's been like that all afternoon with the moms here. There is a lot of 'I want my daughter to go, but I'm afraid of what people will say.' It's spineless," she looked me square in the eyes. "Don't ever, ever be afraid to do what is right. Don't be afraid to stand up for someone when you see injustice or to be someone's friend despite what others think. Okay?"

There was an intensity in her words. A lot to unpack over a cup of tea. I'd never forget this about my mom. She cared about things. Deeply. Injustice made her angry. There was a fire in her belly until the very end.

"But, I don't want you to go if you don't want to," she softened her face, and put her hand on mine, "I know that's hard when you are new."

I know now that she wanted me to go with every fibre of her being, but it was to be my choice. It was my decision, and back then I didn't understand the weight of that choice.

"I want to go, mom. I want to be her friend. I don't want her to be sad. She's nice." My mom squeezed my hand in approval. "That's my girl!"

She leaned back into her chair, "Now, we've got to go shopping to find the perfect gift, now don't we?"

Read the other finalists:

About Emily

Emily Stillwell is a Toronto-based writer whose Maritime roots continue to draw her back to the water's edge. The professional librarian left Toronto for Bermuda in 2017 to follow her heart. It was there she warmed to writing professionally but soon discovered she's better suited to colder climes. Now back in Toronto, she is immersed in writing her first novel. Emily holds a master of information from the University of Toronto, an MA in publishing from Oxford Brookes University, and a BA (honours) in English from McMaster University. Emily has been previously published in The McMaster Silhouette and Elephant Journal.

About the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.