When Mother Goes Away

Photo by Opal P. Adisa

 

“Mommy Gone’”is the first piece in a series of vignettes, that might be the start of my memoir, which I have been resisting. Suddenly it feels right, timely.  This story is my first memory of lost/separation and it still lingers today, five decades later. I sometimes wonder if that is why I am so fiercely loyal to my mother.  Ironically, it was only when I was an adult, with children of my own, and facing a divorce, that I spoke with my mother about my memory. I asked her, how long was she gone. We had never spoken about  her leaving.  She never did, nor did my sister.  My father was mum on the subject.  She was surprised that I remembered, and at first tried to dismiss me with, “that was so long ago.”  I insisted.  My mother said she was gone three months to secure a job and a place before she could come and get my sister and I. She said she didn’t tell us because she did not want my father to know as he was abusive, and she didn’t want us to worry. My mother had ran away.  The belief back then, and probably still to day, is that children do not need to know. My mother did not think my sister and I would have been devastated. My sister and I have not talked a great deal about these memories.  She was a Daddy’s girl, and the next piece, entitled, Daddy Come,’ addresses her allegiances and my conflicting feelings.” –Opal Palmer Adisa
 

Mommy Gone

She did not sing, Rise and Shine, the Sun is Out to wake me as usual.

I went into the kitchen but she was not there.

Beatrice, our helper, put my oatmeal porridge on the table before me with a small glass of orange juice.

 

I did not get my usual kiss, nor did she coax me to eat.

She did not say bye and had me kiss her on the cheeks and wrap my small arms around her neck as she left for work.

She did not say, as she walked out the gate, looking over her shoulder and smiling at me, See you later Ms. Madam, her name of endearment for me.

I searched the entire house.

I searched the entire yard, in the gardens, and even under the house where the dogs took refuge from the sun.

I went to the gate, stuck my head out and looked up and down the lane, but I did not see her.

I heard voices in the kitchen, smiling, thinking that was her, I dashed to the back door and burst inside. I did not see her. I looked in the pantry, even in the fridge.

“Where is Mommy?” I asked Beatrice.

“Go play,” she said. I stood looking at her.  “Go play,” she repeated, snappily, then ignored me and turned to the stove.

I went outside and played.

I played all morning.

I kept going in the house, in my parents room, in the kitchen, in the living room, outside to the right side of the house where the gardens were, and where Mommy spent time tending to her vegetables, but she was not there.

I went back inside and looked under the beds thinking she might be playing hide-n-seek, but she was not under any of the beds or in the bathroom, or on the verandah reading, or in the kitchen baking or in the living room playing the piano.

She was nowhere.  I could not find her and I wanted to find her, so I kept looking.

Beatrice called me to have lunch, and she wasn’t there either, but she was almost never home for lunch so I did not ask, Where is Mommy?

After lunch, Beatrice had me sit on her lap on the back verandah and we listened to the radio soap opera.

Afterwards Beatrice gave me a book to read and I lay on the cool tile floor and read the pictures, tracing the shapes with my index finger.

Then I felt asleep.

When I woke up it was time for my evening bath and to get ready for dinner.

I was so happy and excited.

Once I was dressed and my hair brushed I ran to the gate where I often waited for Mommy to return from work.

I got tired of waiting so went to sit on the steps and played with my favorite Dog, Bruno, who wagged his tail and breathed hard as if he had just run a race.

I scolded him to close his mouth and stop dripping saliva all over the place.

I waited and waited and waited.

I opened the gate and walked out onto the lane, heading in the direction from which Mommy usually came from work, and that was when I was grabbed from behind.

Beatrice spun me around and hugged me to her warm, large frame.

“Come we go eat.  Mommy not coming now.”

I pulled away from her.

“Why?” I demanded, my arms akimbo.  “Where is she?”

“You ask too many questions.  Just come with your womanish ways.”

I refused to budge and planted my feet firmly in the gravel road.

“No,” I shouted screwing up my face. “I’m not moving until Mommy comes.”

Beatrice looked at me, opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it.

“You better come on,” she said turning around and walking away from me.

I stood firmly.

She took a few steps, and then glanced back.

I could feel tears swelling up inside me.

I stomped my feet and screwed my face tighter.

Beatrice took tiny steps.

“Mommy!  Mommy!  Mommy!” I yelled at the top of my voice that my ears vibrated.

Tears ran down my cheeks, but still I stood.

Then Beatrice was beside.  She picked me up, cradled me to her bosom and walked back home carrying me like a baby.

She sat with me on her lap and rocked me while I cried over and over, I want Mommy. I want Mommy.

I worked myself into a frenzy until veins popped on my forehead.  Snot and tears ran down my cheeks unto my neck and dress.  She went and got me sugar water, which I loved, and a cloth to wipe my face.  I would not be consoled. I cried until I vomited. I cried until my head hurt and my eyes were puffy.  I cried until I fell asleep, and when I woke it was dark, and I was laying on my bed, and I could see my sister on her bed, asleep, across from me.

I got out of bed and walked through the bathroom that adjoin my bedroom with my parents’ bedroom.  The room was dark.  I made my way to their bed but it was empty.

Mommy?  Daddy?

I was afraid. I couldn’t move.  I felt pee trickle through and down my panty.

Mommy?  Daddy? I whispered into the darkness, afraid that if I was too loud a duppy  –a ghost, might come and take me away. The pee was cold on my feet.  I pushed my body closer to their bed, Mommy?  Daddy? Mommy?  Daddy? Mommy?  Daddy? I repeated until it was a chant. Until it was louder than the crickets and mosquitoes and other night sounds.  Until it vibrated the house.  Until I couldn’t stop myself. Until Beatrice came and got me, sponged me down, changed my clothes and put me to sleep beside my sister.

The next morning I woke alone, in my sister’s bed. The house was a box without sound.  I was afraid to get up in case I disturbed the silence. I could hear my heart thumping against my chest. I could not utter the word, but I mouthed her name, Mommy.  I wanted her to come and get me.

In the past I would think of her and she would appear.  I closed my eyes tight and mouthed, Mommy.  I waited but she didn’t come.  I mouthed, Mommy again.  Willing her to come and get me, to kiss away my fear. I knew I had to find her so I jumped out of bed and sprinted to her room. It was dark, the bed was spread and no air or breeze ruffled the curtains.

I looked in the bathroom, but she wasn’t there. I dashed into the living-room, slid on the front veranda, mouthed, Mommy? She was not there. Not in the dining room, not in the kitchen, not reading in the nook area, not rocking on the back veranda, not anywhere in the house. Mommy?

I ran outside, the dogs barked playfully, chasing after me. Mommy? I mouthed as I searched the big yard, among the banana trees, behind the mango tree, between the clusters of guava trees, over by the fence lined with coconut trees, between the rows of cabbage and stalks of callalloo vines, by the chicken coops on which the cerasie vine crawled and covered. Mommy?

Now by the other side of the house where the Bird-of-Paradise and Red Ginger grew in larger clusters, the red hibiscus forming an edge, mingled with the different crotons. Mommy! My voice sailed with the wind. Mommy! It competed with the rooster’s boastful cockle-doodle-do. Mommy? My voice set the dogs barking in rounds. Mommy? The humming bird hovered and flew away. The lizards raised their heads from the fence and trees from where they watched me. Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?

Beatrice came and hoisted me over her shoulder. She carried me to the kitchen and put me to sit around the table. She placed a bowl of porridge, a glass of juice and a slice of toast before me. I pushed it away. She stood before me and used her palm to wipe my face.  I could feel sweat on the bridge of my nose. She kissed my forehead.

“You betta eat up. You don’t want me to tell you refuse to eat.”

“Where is Mommy, B?

“Only the Lord knows, little Miss Opal, only the Lord knows.  Just eat your breakfast and don’t fret yourself.”

I swallowed a spoon of my porridge.  I peeled the crust from the bed.  I drank half a cup of my guava juice.

After a while Beatrice pulled a chair in front of me, scooped a spoonful of porridge and said, “Open wide my big girl so you can grow strong,” just like Mommy and I laughed and she popped the spoon in my mouth, and oatmeal porridge slid down my chin and I swallowed some. Beatrice fed me three more spoonful’s, then I started to cry, then I vomited again.  She patted my back and took me outside on the veranda, and rocked me in Mommy’s chair.

The rest of the day was a blur, expect I followed Beatrice wherever she went, and once she almost fell over me, and she shooed me away.

“Go outside and play with the dogs,” she said fanning her hands at me. I didn’t budge. She came where I stood, and guiding me by shoulders, led me out the room, out the door, all the way outside. The dogs sat curled, two on the veranda, Rocky the oldest of them, was out yonder, under the breadfruit tree.  He raised his head and looked at me, and I could see that he was sad too. “Gwane now,” Beatrice urged, guiding me down the steps. “Rocky Lonely and need your company.” I placed one foot in front of the other and took four steps.  I looked back and Beatrice was still standing on the veranda looking at me, waving me on.  I took another four steps.  When I glanced back, she was hurrying through the door. I continued to walk towards Rocky, who licked my hands and feet. I slumped down beside him and whispered, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, please come home.  I miss you.  

I dozed, I chased the dogs, I pulled leaves from the trees and threw them at the lizards, I swatted the flies, I watched the humming birds, I found a piece of stick and drew the path of the ants, I went into the chicken coop and collected four eggs, I went to the front gate and looked up and down the lane, I sat and waited by the front steps. I waited.  I refused to move. Beatrice came and got me, but I refused to eat.  She put me in the bathtub and left me there for a long time.

My sister Dawn returned from school.  I went and hugged her. “Where is Mommy?” I asked her.  She hunched her shoulders, shook her head and tears streamed down her face, without a sound.  We hugged each other and cried.

We heard Daddy’s car the same time, and pushed each other aside to see who would reach him first, feet touching our bottoms, our arms pumping, our voices a blare.

Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!

We got to him almost the same time and each of us hugged a leg.

“Alright now, alright,” he said patting us and kissing us on the top of our heads.

“Let’s go and have some dinner.”

“Daddy, where is…”

“Go and wash your hands and come for dinner,” his voice firm, cutting me off.

The table was set for four like always.  I smiled.  Mommy was going to be having diner with us like usual. We were a family again. I sat down beside my sister, and Daddy began to say grace.

“You can’t say grace until Mommy comes, “ I blurted.

Daddy pretended as if he didn’t hear me and continued with grace. He spooned food onto our plates, never once looking at us. He held his knife and fork, looked over at my sister and I and said, “Let’s eat.”

Dawn began to eat.  I sat still and did not pick up my fork.

With his head focused on his plate, Daddy glanced over at me and commanded,

“Eat up.”

“I want Mommy,” I demanded.

“Eat up and be quiet.”

Dawn nudged me on my thigh. I shook my head.

“I want Mommy,” I insisted.

I said to be quiet and eat up.”

“I want Mommy,” I said trying to stand on the chair.

Daddy reached across the table and grabbed me, lifting me over the table. He held me tightly and our breathing was loud and caught, loud and caught.

“Daddy, I want Mommy, “ I cried and he pressed me into his chest, patted my back, walked to the front veranda, and holding me tight, slouched onto the chair.

“Hush now, hush,” he kept repeating and I didn’t know if it was my tears that soaked his face.”

Daddy left for work and my sister for school before I woke the following day. Before I could ask Beatrice anything she placed two fingers and covered her lips.

She gave me breakfast and left me alone to eat.  I fed all of it to the dogs. She didn’t scold me.

My sister returned from school, but she refused to talk to me, shutting herself in our room and forbidding me to enter.

I sat with my back pressed against the door.  I heard her crying. I knocked but she refused to let me in.

Daddy came home from work, and we were dressed and ready for dinner, but neither of us ran to greet him.

We sat around the table, set now only for three.

Daddy looked over at us, his eyes focused on me and said,

“We will have a nice dinner,” his voice even. “Is that understood?”

“Yes, Daddy,” Dawn replied softly.

The words were stuck in my throat. The only word I could speak was, Mommy?

I looked over to where she usually sat and said it again, Mommy? Mommy?

Dawn began to sniffle. Daddy tapped his knife and fork on the table. I continued,

Mommy? Mommy? Mommy? Mommy? Mommy? Mommy? Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?

Daddy pushed back his chair. Dawn stopped sniffling. I saw Beatrice come from the kitchen.

“Mr. Palmer can I get you anything?” but all the while she was looking at me, her eyes big, sweat forming on her forehead.

Daddy came around to where I sat, pulled me off the chair and clutching my wrist led me to their bedroom, where he flung open the closet door, a place I often hid, enjoying the lavender smell of my mother’s clothes, putting on her high heels pumps, but which was now almost empty.

“She is gone.  See.  She left us. All of us.” And so saying he let go of me, and yanked a blouse that she had left behind from the hanger. The hanger flew across the room. Daddy sniffed Mommy’s blouse then tossed it down as if it stank.

“Beatrice,” he hollered, but she was already at the bedroom door, holding Dawn’s hand.

“Beatrice.”

“Yes sir?”

“I want everything in this closet remove. Everything.  You understand me.”

“Yes sir.”

“Then make sure the girls eat and put them to bed.”

Dawn and I laced fingers and tears rolled down our faces.

Daddy walked over to me, bent down, raised my chin with his thumb, and looking me dead in the eyes said slowly, “There is no Mommy anymore. Rinse her name from your mouth. Mommy is gone.”

My lips trembled and the tears were a fall.

Dawn clutched my hand.

Daddy stormed out the room, and soon we heard his car speed away.

Beatrice could not pull us from the room. We went and sat in her closet and her lavender perfume engulfed us. I clutched the blouse that Daddy had pulled from the hanger, and I screamed until my ear popped, MommmmmmmmmmMe.

Opal Palmer Adisa

Opal Palmer Adisa, Ph. D, diverse and multi-genre, is an exceptional talent, nurtured on cane-sap and the oceanic breeze of the Caribbean. Writer of both poetry and prose, playwright/director, professor, educator and cultural activist, Adisa has lectured and read her work throughout the United States, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Germany, Spain, France, England and Prague, and has performed in Italy and Bosnia. An award-winning poet and prose writer, Adisa has sixteen titles to her credit, including the novel, It Begins With Tears (1997), that Rick Ayers proclaimed as one of the most motivational works for young adults.

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