My (Not-So-Super) Sweet Sixteen


Lots of little girls dream about the perfect wedding – the cake, the dress, the man. I was never into wedding planning as a kid, and surprise of surprises, not much has changed on that front over the years. Instead, when I was a kid I obsessively planned my 16th birthday party.

For some reason, I had a very concise picture of the big day in my head. There would be balloons, streamers, and confetti, everything in bubblegum pink. I’d be wearing a beautiful party dress. No clue why, but in my imagination, all of the fashion at this party was straight out of the 1950’s, with crinolines making all the girls’ skirts extra-flouncy, and all the boys wearing letterman sweaters.

We’d play some games: Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven. My boyfriend (because of course I’d have a boyfriend by that ripe old age) would always be on the opposite side of the bottle when it spun. We’d also listen to records, and dance long into the night, but the best part would be when my parents gave me my own car. True to form, the car was also a 1950’s-era thing, with fins. I loved fins – still do. I believe that the car was also supposed to be bubblegum pink, but that part of the picture isn’t totally clear.

Where I got this idea of a perfect sixteenth birthday, I have absolutely no clue. Maybe it came from a movie or book, or from something Barbie-related, or maybe it just came from having a great imagination. Either way, even after I had grown to realize that no one at my party would ever be wearing crinolines, and my demographic didn’t include guys who lettered in sports, I still held on to some vestiges of the dream. Maybe I’d have a boyfriend, and of course I’d get a car. Didn’t everyone?

“1950’s Coupe at a Drive In” by Cindy Lewis

Weirdly enough, I can remember this fantasy party much more clearly than I can remember the actual day I turned sixteen. I don’t remember if I had a boyfriend, but probably so; I went through a boy a month back then. I don’t remember if I did anything special to celebrate the day, or if I was working. I only remember one thing: my parents gave me a car. It was one of the cruelest jokes anyone has ever played on me.

Around the same time I originally came up with the dream birthday scenario, my mother was driving a 1976 Chevy Nova. By the early 1990’s, the car was toast, and came to its final resting spot on the side of our driveway, up on blocks. One of the windows was broken, and various wildlife – squirrels, opossums, and even the resident cat food-stealing raccoon – eventually made the car “home,” eating the wires, nesting in the seats, and otherwise hastening the car’s return to a more natural state. When I turned 16 in the late 1990’s, the powder blue Nova was more of a rust color. Moss was growing on the insides of the windows. My parents had been talking about having it towed away for years, but that seemed unlikely. After all, no one wanted to disturb the raccoon.

My birthday arrived, as birthdays tend to. Reaching sixteen was a huge deal for me, because I was finally allowed not only to go on unchaperoned dates, but I would also now be allowed to wear makeup, and get a job. I was a junior in high school, a straight-A student, captain of the Quiz Bowl team, a member of the cadre in ROTC, and there seemed to be no end in sight to my opportunities for making out with cute boys on school trips. Sure, money was really tight at home, and we’d just gone through a major hurricane a few months before that had obliterated the first floor of our house, but overall, things were looking up. I knew that the dream for my birthday party was a no-go, but I still felt hopeful that maybe, just maybe, there would be a car in my immediate future. It’s hard to describe just how it feels to know that there’s no way you’ll be getting a car, AND feel like it’s your right to have one, so of course it’s going to happen. The teenage brain is a mysterious thing.

I knew that something was really weird when I woke up and both of my parents were awake, waiting for me at the kitchen table. I don’t remember if my mother had baked a cake for me, but there would be one by that evening – a carrot cake. She always makes me carrot cake for my birthday. I’m not much of a cake person. She was still in her peach-colored fake fur robe. I don’t know what he was wearing, but it’s always some combination of jeans, work boots, and t-shirt. Just like me 🙂

They wished me a happy birthday, and hugged and kissed me like normal, loving parents do. Then from her robe pocket, my mother produced a birthday card. The envelope bulged in a suspicious way…could this be a car key? Happiness burst through me – this was too good to be true! Sixteen AND a car!?!? I looked at them both – poker faces. But of course they were just waiting for me to tear open the envelope, right? Then they’d celebrate along with me, and we’d go out to the driveway to check out my new wheels. Everything was going so well!

I eagerly ripped open the envelope, glanced at the front of the birthday card (“Blah, blah, blah, you’re turning sixteen, beautiful girl, we love you, blah”), and opened it. I was right: A KEY! A key to a car! A key to a car that looked really familiar, somehow. A key to a…Chevy Nova that was up on blocks and infested with rodents of varying sizes. My parents started laughing. At me. On my big day. I didn’t start crying then, but I definitely cried on the bus on the way to school.

This story doesn’t end on a sour note; I was a pretty well-adjusted kid, after all. I got over the seemingly crushing disappointment of receiving a wildlife refuge for my birthday. It wouldn’t be long before my amazing grandfather gifted me with a real car of my own. The Nova was eventually towed away to make room for my 1984 Ford Escort station wagon. I’ve never figured out if my parents thought the joke was a funny one that I’d “get,” or if they really thought that giving me the Nova was an act of kindness. I do know that I never shared my ideal sixteenth birthday with them, so they couldn’t have known that they were stepping on something fragile and pure on that birthday morning. I’d still love to have a birthday in crinolines, and a car with fins. Maybe for my 40th…

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