Chili mac covered with oozing cheese for her baby girl, still chunky at age 3 with a round moonpie face and legs that started off as thick sturdy tree trunks before tapering off into sapling branches and flat feet with long floor tapping toes. Vegetable soup for her little boy, tall and painfully thin, owing more so to the racehorse metabolism he’d inherited from his father than the food allergies she had to carefully screen everything he consumed for. There was not a drop of butter on the rice the two children would share and although her daughter loved the stuff, Mama would be bringing grape juice rather than chocolate milk for them to drink. The girl might get a sip before her brother wrenched it out of her pudgy hands and what a disaster that would lead to. It was expensive to feed her son, but working in the base’s dining facility allowed her to alleviate her financial burden somewhat, as leftovers went out the backdoor with her after nearly every shift. Before departing for work she always made the food he would be served for breakfast and lunch, snacks, and filled his plastic cup. If he drank all the juice, then fill it up with water were her instructions. She trusted no one in the household to kill her son. They couldn’t get her simple instructions right and kept putting hot water in her boy’s cup following some crazy folk beliefs or whatever that cold water would make him sick. Didn’t they know a 4-year-old isn’t smart enough to know when something is too hot to drink while they were boiling water to put in his cup? They really were going to kill her boy one day!
It was getting colder and the sun was setting well over an hour before her shift ended with dinner. Then off she went with her purse, and bag of goodies, and thinks of her little ones, two-thirds of her heart. It is still too early to put in a call back home to speak to the greatly missed piece of her heart. A year had turned into five years without her meaning for it, and she was still trying to find a way to make what she left behind blend in with what she had now. The grass wasn’t exactly green but it was what she had.
The door barely opened before a pair of knobbly sticks were being wrapped around her ample waist and a hot water bottle radiating enough heat to be felt through her coat.
“What the hell I keep telling ya’ll about giving my baby this hot shit?” Her southern backwater strongly melanated roots are shining through loud and clear with her vernacular making her incomprehensible and her admonishment on deaf ears.
Tentatively lurking in the background, the daughter who had been unsure whether to approach or run away, dissolved into tears. And just like that, the evening was ruined. She pulled off her coat with one hand leaving it but not her shoes at the entrance much to everyone’s annoyance before swooping up her son in one arm to mollify his incessant need to feel her closeness and crossing the threshold. He laid his head on her shoulder coffee brown almost poker straight bangs falling heavy over brilliant pond water eyes could hardly leave him to go to work and nuzzled her collarbone. She could hardly leave the boy to go to work in order to be able to meet his most basic needs, so she slipped away while he was still asleep or otherwise distracted, and the household’s members were always anxious for her return for no other reason than to “shut that boy up his whining all the time”. It was a simple and begrudgingly accepted fact that she had usefulness if for no other reason than the boy worshiped the ground she walked on and there was no way to keep him without her.
“Every time I come home and think Imma have a good night.” The woman grumbled.
She met the liquid autumn green irises veiled behind horrifically unattractive coca cola bottle lenses that betrayed mongrel origins and had been raised momentarily from their preferred focus on an open soft covered study book. “Do you really let the other to cry and do nothing while I cannot concentrate?” came the expected criticism from the only person in the place that could actually understand her and should have been her right hand.
F**k you and them GD books!! Your Mammie and your brother both stay here but you wanting me to do everything!!
Inwardly the woman almost through her third decade of life seethed. Outwardly, she just sucked her teeth and said coaxingly to her youngest child, “Stop all that so your daddy can read his books and come see what Mama got for you tonight. Mama knows how much you love cheese. Come see how much cheese Mama put on it for you.”
Her true baby baby didn’t care much for her she knew, the gunmetal grey peepers full of anxiety and distrust, and was half scared of grown people in general crying at the drop of a hat, but she had her ways of getting the little girl to have something to do with her. She was Mama, a title held since her senior year of high school. Of course, she had a way to attract and quiet her youngest child. She still didn’t know how to answer her aunties’ questions about how on Earth she could’ve made the little girl be born so naturally nervous though as they tutted over the child’s seemingly constant crying every time she called them to inquire about her eldest. Had she and that foreigner man she so-called married been fighting all the time when she was pregnant or something?
Why is the last youngun you had always fussing and crying? You and that man been fighting and carrying on so much that you ended up having a nervous as hell baby? Seem like she cry if you look at her and you know that don’t make no sense for her nerves to be that bad already as little as she is! You gone hafta to do something eventually, make a change, cuz she can’t even go to school crying all the time like that. You gone hafta leave there or something if your baby can’t get no peace even when she at home with you and her daddy.
“Why you cry when you Mama is come home now?”
The broken English of her teenage brother-in-law snapped the woman back to reality.
“Mama come home now. Go to eat the food of Mama and no crying!”
As the trickle of salt water streaking and the irritating the sensitive skin of the toddler’s puffy cheeks slowed and she moved slowly towards her mother, the woman breathed a weary sigh. “So you not eating with them tonight? The wannabe gangster I leave my kids with from morning till night is too good to eat what I bring for them?”
It had been a part of the original agreement and she had reluctantly agreed along with the delinquent’s eldest brother currently preoccupied with the study books to put food in his belly in addition to a roof over his head in exchange for his services. Things had been okay back then when they first took him in as a favor to the widowed mother whose womb both the eldest and youngest had shared. Then her mother-in-law had realized that she didn’t have enough control over her eldest son’s life anymore and more importantly the first grandchild that she’d offered her youngest son up to help raise. She had installed herself into the household around the time eldest son was threatening to walk out the door, wife and son, after learning of the second pregnancy less than a year after the boy’s birth and demanding that the unthinkable be done. The woman still remembered the audible thud and horrified confused youth’s face as she cracked his eldest brother upside the head with a hastily grabbed glass liquor bottle at the mere suggestion that she not have this baby and told him that he could get right the hell out now if that’s how he was thinking. That she would be having this baby and would disappear with her son back to the United States and none of them would ever find either her or the children. They wouldn’t even know what she named the baby let alone ever lay eyes on it or see the precious first grandchild, the boy that right from the beginning had enmeshed himself to her.
But then her mother-in-law had come, moved herself into the drafty three-room sixth-floor walk-up unit paid for by the military’s housing allowance, knowing her eldest son would never protest or say no to her, and promptly made a nightmare of the then newly re-expecting young mother’s life.
The older but not too much older woman having become a mother herself for the first time at age 17 as a result of the resident scholar’s birth, despite looking down on her daughter-in-law for the same risky adolescent behavior, eyed her youngest son. He knew what she expected for him to complain about having to take care of the woman’s children all day and all she could offer him was leftover American food like they were all still living during the wartime days and third world status decades that immediately followed or something. Was he supposed to be grateful for scraps like the distant relatives that hadn’t escaped the peninsula migrated to safety and better opportunities prior to the war and had to endure the humiliation of accepting food from the country’s continuous and current occupiers?
“I can eat what nephew and niece are leaving maybe.” He finally said. “They should eat this food not me.”
“No, you can come on and eat with your nephew and niece now and get full so you can sleep good and keep them for me tomorrow.” The woman insisted, speaking just slowly enough to be accommodating. “And you can try to help me understand why you and that mama of yours keep giving my baby boy all this d**n hot water for him to burn his mouth and throat !”
The meal wasn’t sumptuous but it was quite filling. The children ate seated on the floor which was covered with newspaper since nobody reasonable would expect barely preschool aged kids to eat neatly and not make a mess. Everyone in the household always marvelled at the woman’s child rearing techniques. How she had the children sit on sheets of newspaper on the floor insisting that they not get up while eating, warmed the food in the microwave only to immediately place the plates into the freezer for a few minutes to cool it before serving the food to her children, and didn’t give the beverages until after they had eaten most of the food.
“Is this how you do in America?” Her brother-in-law inquired.
“It’s how I was raised.” She quipped nonchalantly.
“Are you not go back to America soon? You want to grow up children here right?” He continued the conversation between bites of the strange casserole that had been served to his niece.
“I don’t know what I want long-term.” She admitted. “But I wanna see my eldest again. I want them to see their big sister too.”
“You want to take nephew and niece to America?” He clarified.
“Yeah, I gave birth to all of them.” The woman reminded him.
“Mother will never let you take them. You’ll be dead before you can even leave.” He shook his head gravely.
No she would not die but she would pay a very high price for her eventual escape to freedom. The tiny bearer of the fallout would never forgive her.
"I'll give my life for my children, but thank you anyway." The woman persisted.
"Thank you for what?" He didn't understand.
"You love and take care of my children like your own." The woman explained with a lump in her throat. "You don't care what color they are or none of that. My boy adores you when he doesn't even give his actual daddy the time of day. And your brother never wanted our daughter but every time I see you with her you're so good to her that it don't even matter what her daddy thinks. Thank you for that. You might be a thug or wannabe banger but you're a decent and good man deep down. You know you not supposed to be doing that but every time you gamble and win some money then you buy for your nephew and niece like there ain't no tomorrow. If I had to leave this country tomorrow I wouldn't worry at all about my babies as long as they're with you. Thank you for that."
They watched the children eat in silence for several minutes.
"You don't belong here. Whatever you are doing do it more quickly. Whatever you do I will look after the children always."
It was the beginning of the end as if he had given her permission, what was broken could never be fixed.
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