Storytime: Martha

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: somewhere over the rainbow.

“You’ve gotten so big” her voice is too soft for a stranger. Her hands are twice the size of my head and starring up at her, endless tall, voice deep like water, black pencil skirt and prim white blouse all I can think is that I’ve never seen this woman in my life.

Except apparently I have. And now I am seeing her again as I’m being herded inside the doorway by my father. I don’t want to be at a strangers house. It’s always a strangers house. So instead of gracious, I’m defensive and cold and sharp eyed but everyone around me reacts like I’ve brought a cake. Like I’m made of sugar and sweetness and eventually I relent and sit on the large orange and beige couch in from the of television set and watch the circus around me unfold.

Martha’s house is all soft textures. Blankets thrown over the couch. Fluffed pillows on the floor. Shag carpet in a worn grey-green color and even their dining table in the kitchen has worn rounded edges. Their two children and rotating cast of extended family weave in and out of the house over the months I spend with them. Her husband, a tall and thin man, whose body bends low when we dance in their grass filled backyard is even soft. His accent is thick and heavy, roots of Jamaican Patwah heavily holding on to his vowels. His laugh is a roar, he throws his head back in triumph when he does it.

Their children, a boy and a girl, their ages flanking mine immediately offer me their toys and their clothes as if I am just another ambiguous member of their world. Some far off cousin. Some distant “family” on another tree. We lay together on the carpet under the dining room table and do our homework together. We build worlds out of discarded boxes we found down the street. We hang Christmas lights on the tree and hold hands. We huddle around the quiet glow of the television screen (set in a soft, aging wooden cabinet).

“Have you seen The Wiz?” they egg me on. I stare wide eyed in confusion. The Wizard of Oz? I think idly. No, they tell me, the good one. We watch the Wiz the whole way through, the adults coming to roost behind us, popcorn appearing in a bowl between us, laughter manifesting itself inside of us.

I think of their house now, divided in my mine into the before and the after. The before this warm glow of acceptance and love. Of being and light. Getting a hug on arrival, being fed spicy stews and saltfish dishes, playing and dancing and singing under one roof. The after is still all of these things but a grown weariness. The Jamacian flag is still hung in the window, the ugly couch still propped against the back of the living room, all changes superficial and easily glossed over but so stark.

I think it’s me that’s changed. Something in me broke and nothing is the same again but years on I realize this must have been one of the places my father stayed when he disappeared. He must have used these people up like a tissue. He must have sucked all the love and hospitality out of them. Like we were doing before but I was too young to notice.

Martha is still lovely for a while. She hugs me when I arrive and she hugs me when I leave. More than my father. More than my mother. Until one day she doesn’t. One day she opens the door and she tells me I’m too old for a hug and sends me to the backyard and acts like I don’t know she is about to yell. As if I hadn’t seen her rear up to height and blow down the whole house. I’m sure my dad deserves it but I sit quietly on the back stoop and I know this is a strangers house again. Maybe it always was.

I don’t know how to be a family. I don’t know how to be a team player. I don’t contribute, I just take. Like my father. And maybe people only put up with that until they run out of patience.

When we leave, Martha still smiles at me, her hand lingering on my shoulder like she does want to hug me. Like she’s sorry for punishing me. Maybe she doesn’t even know she’s punishing me. And we see her again a few times at restaurants, at school functions, but we don’t return to her house. We are outside again. And we remain outside.

Nearly 8 years later I drive around Martha’s neighborhood looking for the old house with the soft edges. I want to explain, I want to apologize to the people who were kind to me. To the people who gave me softness and asked nothing in return. So I drive through street after street looking for some spark of recognition. In the dark it’s nearly hopeless, everything has turned strange in the absence of light but I assure myself I’ll see in the window that banner, that Jamaican flag hanging true. After nearly an hour I find the right street, a crooked sign, a bright blue storefront, just the right angle where the sidewalk turns pointing the way. I slow my car as I pass by door after uninviting door until I see the old mailbox. Now with a new name. Now with sharp gold numbers replacing the wood ones on the door. Now with a large white snowflake decal in place of a warm Jamaican flag. Uninviting and strange. Foreign as I am. Full of apologies that no longer have a home to inhabit.

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