My hands shook as I lifted up the kettle. The smell of jasmine tea hit me in strong waves, somewhat soothing my nerves. I placed the kettle on the mat I carefully placed on the wooden table, taking out biscuits and scones, as well as strawberry jam.
Tears slipped down my cheeks as I opened the drawer containing my mother’s handpainted teacups. I gingerly held them, remembering her laughs as she painted, teasing me as I tried to replicate it. I smiled softly, putting them down as I filled it with the tea.
The sounds of the crashing waves filled my ears, its salty smell gently wafting into the house. I could hear the gulls, the sound of people talking on the shore. I peaked at the window and the Gulf of Mexico never looked so pretty. Emerald green waters shimmering like silky ribbons coated in diamonds made from sunlight.
I peeled my eyes away, looking at the stairs. I took a deep breath, bracing my hand on the back of my chair.
“Tilla?” I called.
Silence greeted me at first. Then I heard footsteps, and Tilla slowly walked down the stairs. She took in the table of tea and goods, me wearing an apron. She tilted her head slightly.
“Would you come? I made you some tea,” I said, smiling faintly.
She inched towards the table, an oversized shirt hanging on her bony frame, her golden hair shining.
She sat down, put her hands in her lap, and looked at me.
I sat, poured some tea, and gave her the cup. I’ve never let anyone else touch those since Mother died. Somehow, in her small, pale hands, so much like Mother’s, it felt okay.
She sniffed the tea, lifted the cup to her mouth, and took a sip. Her eyes brightened slightly, and she sipped some more.
“I want to talk to you. About your past,” I started cautiously.
She stopped, turning those doe eyes to me. She set the cup down and shrank towards the chair.
“I don’t know a lot about you. I would like to, seeing as you are my daughter now. If it’s okay with you,” I added, keeping my voice low and gentle, afraid any shift in tone will have her scurrying back upstairs.
She grabbed the cup like it was a life support. I hated seeing her so vulnerable, so sad.
We sat in silence for a bit, her eyes closed and her face expressionless. I just sat quietly, listening to the crashing waves.
“When I was four,” she said, her voice cracking, “my father got into a car accident.”
My eyes widened, and her’s opened, filled with tears. I reached over the table and held her hand, wordlessly asking her to continue.
She took a deep breath. “My parents… never had a lot of money. We were a family of four, and my mom was heartbroken when Dad died. She couldn’t take care of two kids, didn’t have the money or resources to care for my brother and me.”
She paused, her skin pale with the memories. I squeezed her hand. She lifted her head, and I nodded towards the tea. She let go of my hand to hold the cup to her mouth, but when she was done, she placed her hand back into my palm.
“She placed my brother into an orphanage, and me into another. I wailed and cried. So much. So much that the orphanage workers couldn’t tolerate me. They put me in another room, far away from anyone else.”
“I hated it. Every night, I would wake up crying, begging for my brother. The workers would come in and yell at me, but one night, a lady with red hair came and held me through the night. When I drifted to sleep, I would imagine it was my mother holding me, and the nightmares went away.”
“Luna. Her name was Luna. She would come and play games with me, read books to me. She was my only friend. Every night, she would be with me, and gradually, I felt safe again. I would think about my brother every day, but I wouldn’t cry because I knew he wouldn’t want me to. My family would want me to be happy, my mom put me in the orphanage because she wanted me to have a shot at a better life. I wanted to make them proud, so I stopped being sad.”
“It was all an act, though. Some days, Luna wouldn’t come because she has meetings, and on those days, I would cry until my throat was tight and my stomach hurt. Then I would remember the promise to myself, and I would try to stop, but it wouldn’t work.”
“This happened for six months, and then one day, Luna came into my room, the biggest smile on her face. She stepped aside, and my brother walked in, beaming. I ran to him, crying harder than ever. He hugged me so tight, crying with me. Luna left us, and we talked for hours. He told me how he made friends in the orphanage, how they would sometimes leave to go with other families, and how he never forgot about me. Ever.”
“He asked me how my experience was. I lied, telling him how it was nice and I had friends. I knew he would never want to see me sad, so I lied. And then right after I said that, the workers came to take him away.”
“I screamed and cried, but it was no good. For a few days, I barely left my bed, only getting up to eat and go to the bathroom. I lied to him. Even if it was for his good, I still lied. The last thing I said to him is ‘I’m alright. Everything’s great.’. He didn’t even know anything about me after two years of separation.”
“It took a while for me to be fine again. I persuaded myself that it was for the best. He would assume I was fine and not sad, and that would make him happy, so I was happy. But on the inside, I knew I was just lying to myself. I tried to justify it, saying that if I let the truth in, it would just crush me. I was lying to keep me happy. But really, there is so justification. If I have to lie to myself to be happy, it just means I’ve sunk too low. And that’s the thought that will haunt me.”
“It’s been eight years since I’ve seen my mom, four since I’ve seen my brother. All I want is for them to be happy. I’ve never really thought about myself since I thought it was selfish. And though I knew, deep down, that I had to also take care of myself, I ignored it. I ignored myself and my needs.”
She stopped, her eyes red from crying, her cheeks stained with tears. She’s been talking for a while, and I listened to every word with heaviness.
When she talked, she didn’t sound 12. She sounded like a person bearing too many hardships and desperately wanted to be happy, if only just a taste.
“Now, ever since I’ve come here, I want to be happy, but I don’t know how.”
She looked at me, eyes older than 12 boring into mine.
I opened my mouth and found my throat closed from unshed tears and suppressed emotion. I cleared it quietly.
“Happiness isn’t easy. I know this, but not as much as you. It doesn’t come one day, but it can leave the next. The only way you can hold it is to do small things. Get up in the morning and make your bed. Maybe try to make breakfast. Walk on the beach. Go for a swim. Little things will make you happy more than big things. You’ll feel accomplished that you’re moving and active, and you can hold the leash a little tighter. Every night, it’ll slip, but every morning, your grip will tighten as you do the small things.”
“For example, making tea and scones makes me happy because it’s small, but it doesn’t take too much time. I might wash the dishes while looking at the beach, and just the sight of the waves lifts my spirits. It’s tough at first, but once you get used to it, it’ll get easier.”
I hesitated, pondering if I should continue. Then I looked at her sorrowful face and realized what she needed.
“If you want to, I can help you find your brother and mom.”
Her eyes widened, and I hurried to finish.
“You haven’t seen them in a while. If you need some time, that is completely okay, but when you’re ready, I’m sure that we can find them. Then you can speak to them, especially your mom.” I smiled warily. “I haven’t seen my family for years. My mom died when I was your age. I know how it feels.”
I knew that gut-wrenching sadness, the way you feel hopeless, like there’s nothing in the world except you, just all alone and stranded, with nothing to hold. A child should never feel that way.
She stared at me, her eyes watering again, her hand still in my palm.
“Trust me,” I whisper.
She got up and walked around the table. I stood, and when she reached me, she put her thin arms around my waist and buried her face in my apron.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice trembling. “For listening to me without judging, for understanding. Thank you.”
I hugged her tight, contentment steadily washing over me. Tilla’s shoulders relaxed, an invisible burden lifting steadily off of her.
And I knew as we stood there, Tilla hugging me as I hugged her, that she’ll be alright.
We’ll both be alright.