The Before & The Significant Cigarette

The first few years it was just Momma & me. Krystal was at school. Dad was at work or at war. Even as young as three years old, I can remember helping mom clean every morning. She was meticulous. She pulled a chair up to the kitchen sink for me to stand on while she washed the dishes; I rinsed and stacked. When the dishes were done, we’d sweep and mop the floor. In the living room, mom carefully picked up her knickknacks one by one while I dusted under them. Now I’m certain she went behind me and did it again more thoroughly just as she rearranged the Christmas ornaments every year after we went to bed. In the moment, though, we were a team. She trusted me and I trusted her. I wasn’t big enough to push the vacuum but I helped her pick up everything I could carry so she could get the whole carpet clean. When it was time to pull the couch out, I’d climb up on it & hold on tight. She would exaggerate the movement to make the ride more fun for me.

When the entirety of the house was clean, it was time for exercise. She’d pull out her silver foamy mat for herself & lie down a bath towel for me. In unison, we mimicked the actions of the man with the long ponytail on the television.

Finally, it was time to play. Momma was a master fort-builder. What I liked best was when she made it large enough we could both go in together. Sometimes we’d even eat lunch inside of it. Some days we colored or painted or drew. Some days we played with Play-Dough for the whole afternoon, squishing the dough into every different shape we could imagine. Mom liked board games & light-brite best. I liked when we read together.
When Krystal got home, we’d play a little longer before Momma had to make dinner. Often times we would help her, precisely measuring out 3 cups of rice or keeping an eye on the pasta water so it wouldn’t boil over. Alternatively, we would just play together. Krystal loved Barbies. I loved babies. Our favorite, however, was pure imagination. It’s no wonder, considering our mother was a believer in magic and an avid participant in helping us expand our hearts & minds.

I adored her. She was effortlessly beautiful, even in her gray sweats & over-sized Tshirts. Her voice was soothing as she sang under her breath while doing chores. She actively engaged me day in and day out with new stories and ideas about life. Her skin was unlike any others’, a softness indescribable, unrelatable unless you too felt its love.  Krystal was so much closer to my dad than I.They shared a special bond I could never quite attain. She was Daddy’s Little Princess; so I clung to Mom. I was Momma’s little girl.

Before I understood her imperfections, insecurities, & flaws, she was my only confidant. She was my safe place. She was home. When I miss her now, this is the Mom I remember.

Although I had only been around for a few seasons of it, I knew just what to expect at Christmastime when I was five. The windows of our North Carolina home were lightly frosted with ice. There were twinkling lights all over the house and Mr.& Mrs. Claus figurines on the mantel. The sweet smell of Momma’s baked goods was ever-wafting through the air. Every day for weeks we would spend coloring in our holiday coloring books, singing along to Christmas carols, and replacing each decoration in the house with something red and green until every room in our home felt just like Christmas. What I looked forward to most, aside from Christmas morning of course, was sitting in Mom’s lap before bedtime while she turned the pages of the Little House books. Krystal would sit at her feet, Dad would poke the wood in the fire, and Mom would read. She was so good at doing the voices. Her soft tone was a song of warmth and magic in the cool winter night. I wish I could’ve known nothing would ever be that perfect again.

It wasn’t long before Dad was called to leave again. He always went to faraway places for many months and brought gifts back for all of us. Once he went to Saudi Arabia and brought Mom beautiful earrings made of leaves dipped in gold. This time they made him go to another place with a funny name, Abu Dhabi. While he was gone, weird things started happening in our house. One night, I woke up to the sound of footsteps on our roof and men hollering horrible things. Mom was scared. Krystal & I slept the whole rest of the night in her bed.

Krystal spent one whole morning waiting on the front porch for Daddy to get home. I spent most of the morning playing with my baby dolls. When I saw Mom light that awful cigarette, I ran outside to join my sister. I knew smoking was bad but I didn’t know why. At first, Krystal didn’t believe me. My insistence forced her to accept the truth. Tears started rolling down her face. I’m not sure how, but we both knew that cigarette was significant to something much larger. She ran inside, yelled at mom, and slammed the front door on her way back out. Finally, a bright yellow taxi-cab pulled up at the end of the yard. Out stepped Dad in his uniform and shiny black boots with his big green bag over his shoulder. He didn’t make it to the porch before we attacked him with bear hugs and kisses. Mom stood at a distance from the doorway and when he looked into her eyes, she started crying. She wouldn’t even give him a hug. They sent us to play for a while.

Later that night, Dad gave us the treasures he picked up while he was away. We both got book-weights that doubled as pencil holders. Mine was shaped like a heart with pink, purple, & gold pearls inside of it. Krystal’s was like a pyramid with sparkly gold coins floating inside.

Things weren’t good after that. Mom and Dad were fighting a lot. Some nights, Mom would leave the house and not come back until the next day. Finally, one night, Mom sat down with us on the little blue couch to tell us something important… We were going to have a baby sister. I never knew why she thought it, but Krystal said right away, “and it’s not my Dad’s, is it?!” and stormed off.

I was ecstatic. I had been the little sister for 6 years – now I was going to get to be the big sister too. Despite Krystal’s insight being true, Dad intended to raise the baby as his own. He wasn’t ready to give up on the vows he had made to Mom so many years before. We spent months trying to decide on her name. One day, while my dad was out mowing the lawn, Krystal & I were sitting on the big armchair with Mom. She had a mixing bowl propped up on her belly and little pieces of paper. We all took turns writing down name suggestions and putting them in the bowl. Then mom drew them out and read them off to us for fun. We talked about the meaning of the names and why we picked them. That day we narrowed it down two choices. I ran out to dad who was putting the lawn mower back in the shed and said “Hope or Briana?!” He liked them both. I liked Briana. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue when I said it. When I went back inside to plead my case for the
name, Mom looked at me & said “Hopie.” I think she knew it was Hope all along.

Just a few short months after she was born, Mom took Hopie to Kansas to meet her sister, Aunt Sherrie. She didn’t come back.

I destroyed the ceramic bear she painted in different pastels for me, scribbling all over it in black permanent marker. In the bottom where she carved “To Kayla, Love Momma,” I scratched out the word Love & replaced it with “HATE.” If she loved me, she wouldn’t have abandoned me. I silently vowed to myself, “I’ll never forgive her.”

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