Saturdays when I was ten, she made chili for supper. She slipped on a bib apron, a flower print in faded blues. The waist strings looped into a bow behind her and a strap fastened across her shoulder blades with two white buttons.
On chili nights, I perched on a red Formica step stool near the kitchen table. Did she feel my eyes on her, sense a warm spot on her back just beneath those buttons?
Chili nights happened in Des Moines, but I was born in Ottumwa. According to family legend, Mama was playing cards with friends when labor pains began. Dad chuckled when he repeated the story. “Catherine was having so much fun she hated to leave for the hospital.” So I was born to a woman who enjoyed a good time. Or to one who considered the baby in her belly an inconvenience. You can spin it either way.
In my earliest Ottumwa memory, my brother Bill and I––he two and me four––are jumping on a couch, trampoline style. Stuffing erupts from the seams with every impact. The springs press into the bottoms of my feet. I’m wearing underpants; Bill’s in a diaper. Mama’s a ghost in the background. Not rushing toward us, arms outstretched. Not warning us to stop tearing up the furniture. Not worrying we’ll fall and crack our heads.
We lived in a shotgun house. A living room in the front, where eight-year-old twins Michael and Michelle slept. Behind that, a bedroom with a king bed for Dad and Mama and bunk beds shoved against a wall for Bill and me. And behind that, the kitchen, which led into a shed Dad added on to the rear of the house. You had to walk through the shed, crammed with tools and fishing tackle, to get to the back yard.
Someone took a picture once of Mama and me, posed side by side in the outside doorway of the shed. The black interior filled in the space between our rigid bodies. Mama’s arms were folded across her chest. Her attention was drawn out beyond the camera. Maybe to the sheets on the clothesline stretched between the shed and the outhouse. Maybe to a sudden movement in the pen where Dad’s coon hounds dozed.
Shortly after that picture was taken, we moved to Des Moines, into a two-story house. A staircase ascended from the living room. Midway to the second floor, it took a hard left turn at a landing, then climbed to a hallway and three bedrooms and a bath. I used to read on the landing, in the sunlight that streamed in through a little window. Sometimes my siblings and I crouched on the top step, straining toward the muffled angry voices behind our parents’ door. With my fingertip, I drew lines in the dust that covered the wood floor.
On chili nights, Mama scuffed around the kitchen, icebox to cabinet to stove. Pink slippers stark against linoleum grayed from ground-in footprints. She leaned over a skillet, stirring, hand on hip, while hamburger hissed and crackled, and the smell of onions filled the air. Steam rose from the pan, making the kitchen humid. She stopped to lift the hair away from the nape of her neck. Did she feel my eyes on her, where baby hairs lay fine and straight against her skin?
She tossed a dishtowel over one shoulder, and then reached behind her to adjust the bow at her waist. Did she feel my gaze on the curve of her spine, where the knot rested between the two loops? Maybe she didn’t realize I was perched on a step stool an arm's length away. Every Saturday night.
If I'd only tugged her apron strings, she might have turned her head toward me . . . and possibly … I'd know today … that Mama's eyes were green.
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