Anesu was busy in the kitchen, concentrating on putting the last-minute touches to the lunch on the patio when the back door was flung open, letting in a warm gust of air. Her two boys rushed in and charged upstairs like a herd of elephants and, in fits of giggles, tugged each other's shirts as they raced into their bedroom.
"Can you please make less noise! I'm stressed as it is!"
"Sorry, Mum. We’re going to get ready for Grandma's visit!"
Anesu hadn't seen her for a week after their tense phone call when her mother had been snappy and sounding distracted. It had never been like that before. They had always been very close, especially after her father abandoned them when she was four years. Anesu had a vague memory of him and the subsequent divorce. The only remaining tangible evidence of the past was a faded picture concealed among her novels on the bookshelf.
When she was growing up, Anesu had experienced phases when her longing for a father figure was triggered by an incident at school or a passing comment and then she would bring the picture out and lay it on the table, stroking it as if it was alive. With a drink in hand, she would conjure up visions of what life could have been if they had been a typical family like everyone else. Reality would then hit her that she had been different and saved from experiences her friends shared about transient stepmother and father figures who had in some cases disrupted lives.
Her mother's tone on the phone call the night before had been more reconciliatory. Anesu had missed her company. A friend, sister and confidant all rolled into one. Since her mother was no longer comfortable with night driving, Anesu invited her for lunch. Anesu loved food but had no intention of competing with her mother, who cooked with a passion. As Anesu put the finishing touches to the table setting, the doorbell rang. Setting the dishcloth aside, she hurried to open the door. Her mother breezed in, and her grandchildren bounced into her arms as she greeted Anesu with air kisses and a gentle shoulder squeeze.
"You are looking quite flustered. I hope I haven't put you in too much trouble. What are we having?'
"Don't expect too much, Mum! You know I only cook to survive, and you specifically said that you didn't want to go to a restaurant. I hope you made a wise choice."
"Whatever you prepared, I'm sure it was a labour of love."
The pair sat down as Anesu fidgeted with the table arrangement and went in and out collecting various dishes from the kitchen.
"This is quite a feast!” said her mother. “It looks like we have gone vegetarian! Very pleasing to the eye and no cooking required!"
"Coming from you, that's a compliment! I'm not trying to convert you, so I am serving this spread with lamb kebabs which are the boys' favourites. You'll be pleased to know my summer salad was not all out of packets from the fresh food section! I'm, however, not like you who has taken making meals to an art!"
"It's so colourful! Black beans, baby spinach leaves, tomatoes, cucumber, mango, chunks of feta…I can see you made a real effort. What did you put in the dressing?"
"I know you didn't accept my invitation for lunch to discuss my culinary skills. You have something on your mind."
"You were never one for small talk! I have something to tell you. I have been in touch with your father. Don't look at me like that!"
Anesu, afraid of choking, reached out for water and spilt some in the process. With eyes reddening from the exertion, she said,
"Sorry, I didn't hear you well. Can you repeat yourself?"
"I said I've been in touch with your father for a few months now."
"Why didn't you tell me earlier? Is that why you have been keeping your distance?"
"Give me a chance to explain. I appreciate that your relationship with him is tenuous since he left when you were a toddler, and I'll be honest, I have never got over him. It's been hard for me, Anesu. Bringing up a child on my own and having to make a life on one salary. Looking at other couples with envy…."
"I've sensed all this before, as I was growing up. But you were always putting up a brave face and saying you were happy. What has changed? And what makes you think my dad will make you happy? I'm not even sure why I'm being brought into the conversation. After all, you have been having all these clandestine meetings without me. Why does my opinion matter?"
"Don't spoil the mood, Anesu. I'm trying my best to make sense of all this. In his old age, he's changed. He's..."
"I'm not sure why you think I can erase all the negative memories which you planted into my head. Remember, he left us when I was barely able to work out what fathers are for. All I know about him is what you've told me. So whether he has changed is neither here nor there. I didn't know him then, and I sure as hell don't want him to come walking into my life trying to make up for his absence. After all, I'm not going to live with him, and the boys have been fine without a grandfather."
"I hope you do not want me to choose between the two of you. I know you have been in my life for longer than my marriage. But there is certain companionship which he gives me which I should not expect from you. It would be unfair to burden you with making me happy."
"That's exactly my point, Mum. Why do you need to have someone to make you happy. You should be happy within yourself! There you are, a successful career woman with a thriving business that you started from scratch. You have lots of friends, are in good health and live in a lovely neighbourhood. You want to give all that up and chase an elusive dream? Did my father explain why he left us to fend for ourselves in the first place?"
"Your father says he was young and just starting his career when he entered into a marriage. He was still immature. Then I fell pregnant."
"Oh, so it's all my fault now! I think you forget that I had nothing to do with my conception or the timing…."
"No, no.no Anesu. I'm not saying that you are to blame! Things just did not work out as planned."
"So where has he been all these years? No birthday or Christmas card, nothing!"
"I have to confess. Your father used to send cards, and I just never gave them to you. I was still hurting and wanted to punish him."
"So all these years when I thought he didn't care and I cried myself to sleep, he was reaching out, and you were the barrier?"
"I don't know what else to say. I was selfish, and I can now see that what I did wasn't right."
"So what has he been doing all these years? I can't imagine you have not been keeping track of him."
"Well, he later remarried and had a daughter who is a little younger than you. Then his wife died of cancer. I saw the obituary in one of the daily papers. It was soon after that he reached out to me, and we found out we still had feelings for each other."
"You are a grown woman and can make up your mind whether you are making the right decision."
"I want your blessing, Anesu. You are the only person who has kept me sane all these years. He also wants to meet you. After all, he is your father."
"Sounds to me like emotional blackmail. I need time Mum."
"I can understand where you are coming from…." Her mother started gasping mid-sentence, clutching her throat as her breathing became laboured.
"What's in the salad dressing again, Anesu? I can feel hives developing on my skin and a tingling sensation in my mouth!"
"I know you are allergic to shellfish, so I didn't serve anything which I thought would make you react. Oh no! I can see them - skin-coloured welts. What should I do? Mum? "
Coming to her senses, Anesu dialled emergency services, and an ambulance team arrived after she had shared vital information with an ambulance dispatcher to determine the severity of the situation. Anesu was hyperventilating as the medical team arrived and worked to contain the problem. She tried to manage her boys' concerns bordering on hysteria and explained her mother's allergic reaction, only to be told that Caesar salad dressing often contains anchovies.
"But anchovies are not shellfish! How could I have put my mother's life in danger? She's allergic to shellfish, not anchovies!"
"Yes, Ma'am, anchovies are not shellfish, but they contain a protein similar to one in shellfish. That's probably why she reacted the way she did. Luckily, we have managed to control some of the less common reactions she has experienced, such as her blood pressure drop, "said one of the ambulance team. "The contents of the salad dressing are probably written in small print on the bottle. Don't blame yourself. These accidents happen."
Anesu escorted her mother to the nearest hospital, where she was detained for a few hours for observation. As she held her mother's hand, Anesu tried to recollect their lunchtime conversation as she monitored her mother's recovery.
"Mum, I'm so sorry! I honestly did my best to remember your allergies. This experience has put me off cooking for life!"
"Anesu, don't be so melodramatic! Yes, It's been an unpleasant experience which I would not like to repeat. Perhaps read the food labels more closely next time?" said Mum with a wane smile as she drifted back to sleep. "And do me a favour, contact your father. Try and spend time with him. I have made my peace with him. Life is too short!"