The Long Trip: Part II
Our mother’s mood swings can be fun, when she is on the high part of them. My mother and I dance around the house singing and laughing, she looks beautiful with her long dark hair swinging freely and a rosy flush on her cheeks.
“Come on TT, dance with us!" I say to my sister through fits of giggles.
Sarah Jane wants no part of it; she is content in the corner drawing. "I'm busy," she says sternly without turning in our direction. I can't for the life of me figure out why Sarah Jane or TT, as I call her, would want to miss this fun time, but she knows something I am too young to comprehend, that these highs our mother has, are undoubtedly always followed by crushing lows. We are still having fun, we play with dolls, my mother doing different voices for each, we try on some makeup that she brought over from the States, she even picks me up over her head, and lets me pretend I am an airplane. I am in heaven playing with her. We only stop because we are both exhausted, and she must go outside to start dinner.
Our kitchen is just outside and to the right of our house. A gigantic tree, which must have fallen some time ago makes up our table, this is also where our father likes to sit and smoke in the evenings. A roof consisting of old pieces of siding and fencing is secured to some small surrounding trees and shelters the area from rain. Our stove is made up of an old oil barrel with the top and part of one side cut off. Broken cinder blocks are used to fill it up, and weigh it down from strong winds. Fire wood is placed on top of the cinder blocks, and a make-shift grill made of chicken wire is placed on top of the wood, for the pots and pans to sit upon. When the fire gets low, it needs someone to blow on it, so the fire can grow from the blast of oxygen. While this gets the fire going stronger and hotter, the blower usually ends up with a face full of ashes and soot, that come bursting from the stove as the air is blown in.
Despite the primitive set up, and our father constantly telling her she cooks like a foolish white woman, our mother enjoys cooking. After playing with me for hours, she slips out to begin cooking the rice and beans for dinner. The cooking process takes a while, getting the fire started and such, so I occupy myself by drawing wonderful swirls with a crayon on paper. Sarah Jane has stopped drawing, she is sitting up stiffly looking intently at the back door, passing a little rubber ball between her hands. She is waiting for what is coming; the devastating low of our mothers mood swing. Then we hear it, a scream of pain from outside. We run out to see what happened, and find our mother holding her arm, she burnt herself as a piping hot coal fell from the stove.
"Are you Okay Mommy?" I ask, still blissfully ignorant of what is coming.
"No, I'm not okay! I can't do all this!" she shouts, sounding angry and panicky. She turns sharply to Sarah Jane and me; there is anger and hate in her usual gentle eyes.
“This is your fault! Look what you did to me!" now she is screaming. "I have to cook for you and clean for your, I can't do it all!" She turns away and begins to sob. Our father is not here, he is in town, I wish he was here, he would know what to do.
"Leave me alone! Get in the house!" she cries out between sobs. "I'm going to the river." She turns without looking at us toward the pineapple and banana tree-lined path. Sarah Jane grabs my arm firmly yet gently and guides me inside.
“Mommy is mad at us," I say through hiccups and sobs. I can see the hurt on Sarah Jane's face too, but she is holding it in.
"She's not mad," she tell me, "She just burnt herself. Let's clean the house and that will make her happy again."
We get to work quickly cleaning the house. We put all our clothes away in the duffle bags we use for travel and storage, we put our small collection of toys in the corner, and as I work on putting the crayons away, Sarah Jane goes outside to check on the now boiling pot of beans our mother abandoned on the stove. Minutes turn to hours as we wait for her to come back from the river. The beans finish cooking while Sarah Jane starts a smaller pot with rice. Before the rice is done, our mother returns, her eyes and lips puffy from crying. She comes up the three steps and through the door slowly, eyes cast down. We are standing in the middle of the house, I am clinging tightly to Sarah Jane's arm, and we pray she is not mad anymore.
"The house looks wonderful," she says quietly. "You girls did a good job cleaning."
Sarah Jane walks over to her, "Grandma told me this goes on burns."
She hands our mother a tub of petroleum jelly. Our mother drops to her knees and throw open her arms.
"My girls, what would I do without you?" she says.
We both dive into her arms as she squeezes us tight. I nestle my head into her neck and take in her scent, the wonderful smell of patchouli oil. While in her arms I am sure everything is going to be alright. Though her mood is better, the cloud around her does not lift until our father returns, with a cookie for Sarah Jane and me to split and a small bottle of whiskey. This pattern became more and more frequent, until there is no money left and little food. Every night, our bellies ache so much with hunger, occasionally I crawl into Sarah Jane's lap whimpering, and she holds me, rocking me back and forth and singing a song she made up just for me.
We all try to be resourceful; our father goes hunting and fishing, sometimes returning with a small booty. Our mother stretches everything as far as she can and always eats last. Sarah Jane and I try to help by stalking the pineapple plants, checking them every day for signs of a ripening pineapple, ready to taste the tingly sweet juice on our tongues.
The countdown until we will leave has already started, our parents did not want to admit it, but they will not be living off the land, not this time. Now it is only a matter of time, the fights stop, they are replaced with quite whispered conversations which take place after they think we are asleep. Before long, we pack our duffel bags, put on our clothes that cover as much of our bodies from the dangerous jungle hike as possible, and begin our journey to the States. "It's just for a little while," our mother says trying to reassure herself. "We'll be back with your father in no time; he just needs some time to work out a plan." Reasons are irrelevant to me, all I can think is soon I will have Twinkies and cottage cheese again, we won't be hungry anymore, and best of all, I will be in Michigan for my fourth birthday.
This is where I feel safe and content, here on Farragut Court in Northville, Michigan. The weather is cold, there is snow covering everything, and that only makes it more wonderful. Sarah Jane and I love to play in the snow. We strap on our snowsuits, mittens, hats and scarves that have been patiently waiting for us to pull them out of the storage closet and use them. We stay out in the snow playing, building snow forts, making snow angels, and trying to get a grown up to take us to the hill a few blocks away for sledding . We stay out until the bitter arctic air has made our noses and lips numb, then still giggling and coated with clumps of snow, dash inside to run our hands under the warm water, and then return to the frozen back yard. We must follow our grandparent’s strict rules when we stay with them, and we miss our father and the freedom we had in Belize, but the comforts and playmates that we find in Michigan make it easier to live with these rules. I think of my birthday, just a little ways away, I will get a scrumptious homemade cake, any kind I want. I think about spring, when we can put on shorts and roll down the plush grassy hill.
For now we can gorge ourselves on Twinkies, cheese puffs and fried bologna sandwiches. It will not last; we know that it is only a matter of time. She will begin to miss him, the crying will start, the longing for her husband would become unbearable, and the panic attacks would start. Sadness and panic will overwhelm our mother, and then, we will return to our father, and the dark, mysterious jungle to which he seems anchored. For now, we will play in the snow, for now, we are secure, protected and blissful.