by Myra Chappius
The sun is shining outside my window. My mom said it would be, but I still prayed all night for rain. I’m not sure if prayers actually work but it was all I could do. I know it’s early but Mom is already awake. I can hear her down in the kitchen, same as she was when I went to sleep. Seems like she’s been cooking for weeks but I guess it’s only been a few days. I know she’s nervous about having the whole family at our house for the first time. I’ve been trying to help, even if that means just staying out of the way. It kinda feels weird to be praying the day away and helping make it happen at the same time. I wonder if that’s what being an adult is like – doing a bunch of things you don’t want to do.
I swing my legs out of bed knowing I can’t put it off any longer. I had already chosen my clothes carefully, but when Mom came to check on me last night she saw them laid out and said it would be too warm for long sleeves and corduroy overalls. I told her I didn’t mind but she insisted and set upon my closet shuffling through all of the dresses until she found the pale yellow one I wore for Easter.
“This is perfect,” she said.
I just nodded, knowing I couldn’t object, and asked if I could at least have tights. Thankfully, she agreed. I guess maybe some of the little prayers get answered.
I get dressed – underwear, undershirt, tights, dress. I look in the mirror wondering if I can fit another shirt underneath. I decide, sadly, that I can’t. I put on my white tennis shoes, if she says something I’ll change them. Hopefully, she’ll be too busy to notice today. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m worried about.
Downstairs, the radio is on. I can barely make out the words. The kitchen is full of smells, warm and sweet, and something else I can’t make out. There is a moment before she sees me. She is singing to herself, mixing something with her hands in a big bowl. I wonder if I’ll look like her when I grow up. Everyone always says I’m the spitting image of my father. I don’t see it, at least not yet. I used to spend a lot of time wondering what he was like, asking questions. Or trying to. He died when I was a baby, but Mom still has a hard time talking about him. “I’ll tell you when you’re older” is always the answer. I get it. I like to see her smile, so I just leave it alone now. She breathes a little easier these days and I’m happy for that. There was a time when things weren’t so good, and I don’t want to go back there.
She gives me one of those smiles as I sit down at the table. There’s barely any room but she squeezes a bowl, spoon, box of cereal into an empty space. She goes back to her baking, checkered apron at her waist, humming a tune. I see an apple pie cooling on the stove – Uncle Roger’s favorite. The empty bowl is in front of me but I sit staring at that pie, seeing him in my mind. The slightly stooped way he walks, his dirty fingernails, his eyes that aren’t quite the same shape. For a second, the smell in the room turns to him instead of the fragrant aroma of cooking. Goosebumps have broken out on my arms and I swipe them away. Be brave, I tell myself and pour some cereal into the bowl.
After breakfast, I head outside to set up, careful not to get anything on my dress. The sun is already pounding down on the ground full strength. I wasted my time with those prayers. Table after table, chair after chair – is our family even big enough to fill all these seats? Seems to me family reunions might include more than just family. Just my luck. The more people there are, the less chance anyone will notice I’m gone. And the truth is, I want them to notice. I want someone to find us, to take the choice of telling away, make the decision for me. As soon as the feeling of calloused hands finally fades from my skin another holiday or family event comes around – another meeting with Uncle Roger. I know Mom would miss the money. I know we can’t make ends meet without it, might even lose the house. I know there’s a chance she might return to that dark place. But someone would help. Right? Someone else would surely help us if they knew. My 10-year-old self can’t be our only hope – not that way. Uncle Roger says this is my best bet. Just go with the flow. Our arrangement, he calls it. I call it something else, but only to myself.
My heart beats faster with every hour that passes. I watch the sun ascend up the sky, bringing my fate closer and closer. Mom is a blur, in and out of the house, bringing tablecloths and homemade centerpieces. She is really looking forward to this day. By the time guests start arriving she is flushed, in a pleasant way. Her eyes are shining. Person after person remarks on how well she looks – how healthy. She is basking in the positive attention, the compliments to our home, her decorations. I know it is a welcome reprieve from being “that poor woman”, the one with a dead husband and a child to raise.
I am just beginning to think the sour feeling in my stomach is from too much lemonade when I see him, and know, instantly, that’s not the case. There is a look in his eye, one I’ve seen before. I look around for my mother, wondering if I’ve got the guts to change her life forever. Again. She is talking to my grandmother, my dad’s mom – the only grandparent I have left – and my manners have frozen me to the spot, unable to interrupt. But then she turns her head slightly to the left, does a double take and sees Uncle Roger. A smile breaks out over her face and I see her touch Grandma on the shoulder, her body starting to move as she excuses herself. She is, no doubt, going to greet Uncle Roger, to thank him, let him know just how much that monthly check really helps, show the pie she’s made just for him. At the same moment she begins her journey, my body is released to begin mine. Even now, I don’t know what I will say when I get to her, what words will come out. But I am moving, nonetheless. A random cousin buys me some time with an exuberant greeting my mother just can’t ignore, and I make it to my destination before she can make it to hers. I skid into her just a bit, breathing more heavily than I should be for the short distance I have come.
Chest heaving, “Hey Mom,” I say, and her attention falls on me.