“Non-existence I call the beginning of Heaven and Earth. Existence I call the mother of individual beings,” Tao Te Ching.
It had been sweltering hot all day, in the hundreds the radio said. I didn’t see much of the outside as Mama pulled down blinds in every room to keep us from roasting inside. I had the responsibility to turn on fans in the house. I proudly executed that task, running from one place to the next as fast as I could. Mama and I lived in a spacious five-bedroom ranch, being just the two of us, we didn’t use all the rooms. I still turned on the fans in every room. Once I completed my rounds, I stood still in the middle of the hallway that connected every room; for a moment, I listened to the steady rhythm of the rotating blades coming from all directions. Mama had explained to me that the house could not take off, even if all the fans were on at full blast. I still thought it was possible, or maybe hoped?
At age nine, imagination ruled my thoughts, and its beautiful creations trumped any known laws of nature. The house taking off would make for an exciting new adventure. We could pay a visit to Re, the Egyptian Sun God that I had learned about in school. Today would be a perfect day, his day, Sun-day.
As if to honor his sweltering highness, I often imagined that if one day the house slowly rose to the heavens, it would be on a quiet Sunday morning, when almost everybody else in New Orleans was attending church. We wouldn’t try to stop it. I wouldn’t. I’d convince Mama that there was a perfect place for us in the sky; a fluffy cloud where we could settle comfortably. Just the two of us!
Another thing I learned in school is that the higher the altitude, the colder it gets. That’s why you have eternal snow at the top of the mountains. And I guess clouds are mostly white because they are high enough to float around in cold air. High altitude is like a giant refrigerator with no door for colorful magnets or ugly school art.
Our house floating on a cloud, we would never have to run fans or pull down the blinds. Temperatures would always be pleasant—we’d pick a cloud not too high or too low, one spending its time in the most agreeable altitude—and we could play hours of hopscotch or four square outside and read or take afternoon naps in a hammock we’d bought especially for that. We would be perfectly happy, safe on a cloud, just the two of us; a glass of lemonade in one hand and slow-melting chocolate in the other.
Ceiling fans at full speed and blinds down helped a little in the early morning, but by ten o’clock it started to get too hot, and Mama had to turn on the air. We were not on a cloud; it felt like we were at the center of a volcano.
That day, we ended up staying at home, playing Mad Libs, listening to the radio, dancing, singing, telling each other stories, and trying to guess which one was true, which one was false. Mama was good at guessing. She also said that my made-up stories were too far-fetched to seem real and my real stories were too serious. Mama was honest with me, and I liked that.
She surprised me when she asked me what I wanted for supper. Dinner already? We had had so much fun, and we didn’t notice lunchtime had gone passed; with the blinds down, it was hard to tell if the sun was setting, if we were supposed to be hungry. Mama never put me to bed with an empty stomach. It was one of her few cardinal rules. Even if all I ate was a bowl of fruit, she made sure the day ended on a healthy meal.
“How about milk soup, a perfect day for that?” She smiled.
Mama didn’t just have a fantastic smile; she was the most beautiful woman on the planet. If one day, we did ascend to the perfect temperature cloud in the sky, she’d be the prettiest mother in heaven. Beware, Athena!
Today, she was wearing a silk gown and had tied a red sash with beaded fringes around her slender waist. She was barefoot, and her toenails were painted red. She didn’t wear her headscarf, and her long dark hair was in a ponytail. Her olive skin was the last touch of that Creole perfection.
Our family was very Creole and had been Creole long before it migrated to Louisiana. We came from France through Acadia. Our blood had all the colors of the rainbow, and Mama said that when it rained, we looked even more beautiful because our curls were prettier and our skin got shinier.
I always said yes to milk soup, still my favorite summer meal to this day.
I helped myself with three large spoons of cane sugar, two hands of bread chunks, poured the milk, stopping just before I made a disaster. I made a smaller serving for Mama. She never ate too much. I did. Hungry or not, hot or not, sweaty or not, I always helped myself with three servings of milk soup. It was so refreshing, and to my young mouth, it surpassed ice cream, milk-shake, or soda.
After dinner, I bathed, brushed my teeth, untangled my hair, and donned my nightgown. When I got back to my room, a new white summer dress was on my bed, and a pair of new red Mary-Jane’s were on the floor. I screamed and raised my arms in victory. We are going out!
Mama laughed, glad to see my little body shaking with excitement. She liked to surprise me, and that’s why she never told me when she’d decided we’d spend the evening in town. All-day, she would pretend it was just a regular day, and I’d have to be in bed at eight pm, but then there would be a dress on the bed—not always a new one though—and we’d take the streetcar to town for a night in the city.
I took off my nightgown and changed into the new dress as fast as I could, nearly falling over on the bed. When I was finished getting dressed, I faced Mama, swirled around a couple of times, each time concluding with a low curtsy and a near-perfect smile–I was missing one of my front teeth. She smiled, clearly amused, and charmed and away we went.
New Orleans was so much quieter when most people went home early to rest for the next day at work, and when the tourists were preparing themselves to head back up north with a bunch of souvenirs that would remind them of their visit -until they visited again and bought more souvenirs.
I always wanted to please Mama, and see on her face that I was everything in her life. I tried hard to make her feel that she was everything in mine. Her presence reached deep into my innocent soul. We were still one. I was part of her, and she was part of me, the deepest part. When I held her hand, hugged her, or cuddled against her tummy, I felt her heartbeat echoing in mine. I felt our hearts beating as one even when she was in another room or when I was at school, and she was at work.
Mama charmed me by seeing herself in me, by being present in me, for me, and by never stopping a moment to give me life. She will always give me life.