Room Magazine - - SIMMONDS -

This is what I can tell you:

On a June night in 1986, my mother drinks from a tall glass of ice wa­ter. The ra­dio might be on. If it is on, she is lis­ten­ing to Patti or Luther or The Poin­ter Sis­ters or Whit­ney. She might be singing, voice off-key but still ris­ing proudly up her throat.

She sits in the front room of the East New York house, the plas­tic cover on my grand­mother’s crushed vel­vet sofa slick and tacky be­neath her thighs. The ice cubes glit­ter as if her glass is full of di­a­monds. Her lips, lay­ered with her trade­mark shade of red, leave a per­fect, thick tat­too on the rim of the glass. The house glim­mers with move­ment and bod­ies. Her brother in the base­ment. Her sis­ters in the blue room, ar­gu­ing and watch­ing TV. My grand­mother in the grand rear bed­room, lis­ten­ing to the kreyól sta­tion on the ra­dio as she pow­ders her body post-shower. My brother and I, bar­rel­ing through the dim light of the house like tum­ble­weeds.

The heat of Brook­lyn leaves wa­ter bead­ing against my mother’s cleav­age the way ba­con grease pops from the pan. Her body is loud, heavy with health. All the sib­lings are built this way. No one yet knows the cancer is com­ing.

I am five. I don’t think twice about break­ing the soli­tary plea­sure of this mo­ment by scram­bling onto my mother’s lap. My body is sturdy and ki­netic; I climb over the mounds of her, bury­ing my head against her breasts. She rests the glass of wa­ter to the side and her hands— cool, damp, and pa­tient—wipe my face. The same hands that wipe me clean each morn­ing, grease me up with co­coa but­ter or Vase­line, and sec­tion my thick hair into braids as neat and pre­cise as lawns. The hands that feed me. My mouth is con­stantly putting in work on some­thing good. I live my child­hood through tex­ture.

This is what I un­der­stand women to look like:

Skin is deep brown. Bel­lies are round and soft, per­fect to rest your head upon. Thighs are par­en­thet­i­cal and stout. Un­move­able. Dim­pled as clemen­tines. Finger­nails are ta­pered and red as fruit. Fat is not a dirty word: it is sim­ply de­scrip­tive.

The story of a black woman’s body has many begin­nings. In this begin­ning my mother re­minds me of how she looks when she has a plate of good food: joy­ous, com­fort­able, at ease.

Another day this same sum­mer, I heave hand­fuls of salted peanuts straight from the jar into my mouth. My tiny body is pressed to the kitchen ta­ble, salt and oil sting­ing my palms. My jaw aches but still I crunch, chew, mas­ti­cate. I have learned from the women who pop­u­late my life that food is the great healer. The abil­ity to sit and chew, to change the mat­ter of some­thing un­til it be­comes part of you, is a method of med­i­ta­tion. Food fills when ev­ery­thing else fails to. Pain and dis­com­fort are not cause to stop eat­ing. You eat un­til the ache numbs.

Hours later at my aunt’s block party, while the rest of the neigh­bour­hood elec­tric slides on the closed-off street, the dee­jay’s bass un­hinges my belly. I vomit for hours. I will not touch peanuts again un­til I am a grown woman, but I fill the gap seam­lessly. Fuzzy peaches be­come my favourite. I hoard bags of them in the bot­tom of my sock jar, un­til my socks are gritty with sugar gran­ules and tiny black bugs the size of punc­tu­a­tion marks nest in my clothes. I love the tang of dill pickle potato chips, that sat­is­fy­ing crunch fol­lowed by the sharp flood of flavour. I fan­ta­size all day about my mother’s lasagna, un­able to con­cen­trate on any­thing else but the thought of lay­ers of cheese, pasta, and ground beef nest­ing on my tongue. I learn Haiti, my grand­mother’s coun­try, not through lan­guage but through food. Each Sun­day she stands at the stove­top in slip­pers, a dish­towel slung over one shoul­der. Hours af­ter she is done, the walls sweat out the scent of dumplings, black mush­room rice, soup joumou. The women who surround me un­der­stand that food sa­ti­ates and fills much more than the belly.

The day comes where my mother, my brother, my sis­ter and I board a plane. We are fly­ing three thou­sand miles from Brook­lyn to Vancouver to join my fa­ther. As we soar above our bor­ough, we look down, faces pressed to the win­dows like flow­ers turned to the light. This is the first time any of us have seen New York from this height. We will not see Brook­lyn again for years. My mother has packed sand­wiches and plas­tic bags of gold­fish crack­ers. As I bite into the tuna and whole wheat bread, a calm I did not know I needed pulses through me.

When they cut away my mother’s breasts we are in Sur­rey, the place that is now home. I am eight. My mother’s body lives in one coun­try while her heart lives in another. This dis­so­nance is one of the lead­ing causes of cancer. She is one bor­der and two oceans away from the other

big-bod­ied women who have al­ways or­bited her life. The ones who could ease her through the dan­ger metas­ta­siz­ing in­side of her and sweep her fear away like dust. “Our phone bills were three hun­dred dol­lars a month that first year from home,” she will tell me years later. The first time I see the cloth of her shirt rest flat against her chest, I turn from her, afraid and small and feel­ing stupid for the words I do not have. I slip bare­foot into the kitchen and pull leftovers from the fridge. I do not know what I am eat­ing but the fa­mil­iar slide of my jaw damp­ens my fear. I will not lose my mother. I will not lose my mother. I time the mantra with each bite and the food be­comes part of the med­i­ta­tion. Later, in the mid­dle of the night, I hear her in the kitchen, root­ing through the fridge. This is how I know she will not die: through the chemo, she does not stop eat­ing. Her tow­er­ing, shin­ing afro shrinks to chaff and she is al­ways tired, but the fridge stays full and the stove­top fired up.

Years later, the cancer re­turns. It has mi­grated and resur­faces as a hard knot in her colon. We have all scat­tered now: me in Cal­i­for­nia, my sis­ter in Wash­ing­ton. My brother re­mains to hold down the fam­ily fort. When the news hits, we gather our­selves and con­verge upon Sur­rey. I sit next to my mother on her hos­pi­tal bed at Sur­rey Me­mo­rial while the doc­tor sketches the mass on a nap­kin. She lies on her back with her arms across her flat chest.

We look at what the doc­tor has drawn, both our brown necks stretched for­ward. He has sketched a golf ball of hard tis­sue, wedged at the cross sec­tion of small in­tes­tine, large in­tes­tine, and colon. I watch as the doc­tor swirls the mass in with black ink. It looks like what anx­i­ety feels like in my belly. It looks like mor­tal­ity.

I don’t lis­ten as the doc­tor speaks. I think about heal­ers. The kind of women who pop­u­late the world of toni cade bam­bara’s The Salt Eaters; women who in beau­ti­ful cloth­ing and with warm breath can braid the hair of another woman with­out pulling too tight. Whose smiles and mur­murs calm the fu­ri­ous an­i­mal in you. Women oth­ers talk about with re­lief and grat­i­tude for the good they bring. I am not such a woman: my hands are in­dus­trial and plain. I am bet­ter with words than with touch. My mother’s ill­ness makes me anx­ious, an­gry, and hun­gry. As the doc­tor speaks, I re­mem­ber that we are God-fear­ing peo­ple and I send out a prayer that I might be blessed with heal­ing hands to lay upon my mother’s skin and dis­solve this thing into noth­ing­ness. My

up­bring­ing taught me that my bap­tism as an in­fant saved me, so I can­not un­der­stand why I feel so god­less.

Two weeks af­ter the first chemo treatment, I visit home again. I come up the stairs to her bed­room and do not rec­og­nize this woman.

Her shoul­ders are an­gu­lar. The rapid weight loss gives her bi­ceps the look of batwings. The belly and thighs that spread and jig­gled are gone. To see her in this way makes me re­al­ize how alone she is in this coun­try. An or­phan with six sib­lings and count­less nieces, neph­ews, and first cousins. Ev­ery­thing has dragged from her.

I go back to the kitchen to pull food from the fridge. She has not eaten a full meal in days and needs nu­tri­tion. And I re­al­ize I have never thought of food in this way. Food has been sur­ro­gate, proxy, com­fort. Never nu­tri­tion. Stand­ing over the stove, I heat up mashed pota­toes with pork ribs in a pan the way she prefers—not in the mi­crowave. When the food is warm I place it care­fully on one of the nice plates only pulled out for spe­cial oc­ca­sions. I crown the pota­toes with a thick wedge of but­ter. Fat shines on the meat. My mouth waters. The bones will give her some­thing to chew and suck on, the way she has al­ways done with ribs. The gris­tle will glue her body in place.

I bal­ance the plate on my hands up the stairs to her room. “Here, Mommy.”

She turns from the food with a shud­der. “Just bring me some wa­ter, baby,” she asks. We com­pro­mise with straw­ber­ries.

In a plas­tic bowl I hold six cut-up bits of too-ripe straw­berry, slimy as al­bu­men be­tween my fin­gers. I hand-feed her, press­ing the sliv­ers of fruit to her cracked lips, bid­ding her mouth to wake up, be loud as ’86. Af­ter two swal­lows, she is full. Eat­ing is a chore. Each bite, a tiny blade.

I have come to rely on that mem­ory of ’86. My mind has locked on the still life of my mother on the couch, sip­ping wa­ter on a hot day, her body at its big­gest. This, I know, is a child’s ren­der­ing of a woman. I un­der­stand this is a re­duc­tion of my mother to flesh and sweet mu­sic and a warm evening in Brook­lyn. But she has al­ways taught me, in her own way of say­ing it, that thoughts be­come things.

This is what I pray for:

To have the for­ti­tude of her four sis­ters in the kitchen, fan­ning smoke from the stove­top with a dish­towel. To be cool and calm­ing as

ice clink­ing in a glass rimmed red from her mouth. I want to tip my mother’s throat back and look deep in­side her, all the way down to her most truth­ful part and find out what will hap­pen on the other side of this telling. I am weary of the re­minders of her mor­tal­ity. Black women and their daugh­ters have earned the right to love one another un­in­ter­rupted.

One day the sum­mer of 2015 will be a one day: a mem­ory as old as 1986. The story will go: you lost so much weight. You scared us when you stopped eat­ing. Then, lit­tle by lit­tle, you re­turned to your­self. You wore red again and re­claimed the kitchen as your do­main. I walk through her house, touch­ing things, imag­in­ing this, urg­ing time to march for­ward closer to my fan­tasy, that this food story will spi­ral up­wards, back to a place where sati­ety is re­turned to its proper func­tion in our lives.

I can­not tell you this yet.

This is the ro­mance, when I am still court­ing a present that starts and stops like an an­i­mal tak­ing its first steps. I’m im­pa­tient for the beau­ti­ful story of food and sur­vival and weight gain and hair once again lus­trous and deca­dent. I am hun­gry for this re­al­ity to hold the smooth weight of re­lief. And this is the hunger I can­not quell.

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