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Stacia Brown | Mama’s Writing

Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, curated by Deesha Philyaw.


What surprised you about motherhood?

This is the most obvious thing in the world, but even 11 years into motherhood, I’m still surprised that I’m someone’s mother. I’m still surprised that the child who walks around our apartment, asserting herself and opining about things and asking me about my past, is my child. I know that I grew and birthed her, brought her home and have raised her for over a decade, but I’m still surprised that it happened and that it’s still happening.  

Who are your writer-mama heroes?

I like Black women writers who are candid about the joys and challenges of trying to parent — especially to single-parent — while also publishing. So of course, there’s Toni Morrison, whose quotes about motherhood have been vital to affirming my need for a communal practice, where I’m able to rely on other women and to be a support to them. And I’ve also been fascinated by Alice Walker’s writing about motherhood, her relationship with her daughter Rebecca, and how it was shaped, for better or worse, by her unwavering commitment to a writing career. 

Specifically, I remember reading “One Child of One’s Own: A Meaningful Digress Within the Work(s),” the last work in the seminal collection, In Search of Our Mothers Gardens, and just thinking about how freeing it felt to read that, before I had any children, this idea that if I were to have any, one would be more than enough — that I could say “enough” after one and she and I could be a family, could be enough for each other — and that after that child’s birth, I could want entirely different things. Not necessarily a husband or more children or any sense of domestic permanence. I read that essay in my 20s, and by the time I had my daughter at 30, it felt like a kind of map. I also have always appreciated how much Walker seemed unafraid to admit that motherhood wasn’t the single best thing that would ever happen to her, but rather one of many transcendent and fraught experiences, and she made no apology for that. 

How has motherhood shaped your relationship with the world?

I’m kind of on the extreme side of introverted and find it difficult to form meaningful and lasting connections with people. I’m most comfortable interacting with people in increments, here and there, on an event-by-event basis. It’s hard for me to show up in the world and just… stay. I’m probably one of the most retreating, reclusive people I know. I absolutely can’t be that way as a mother. It seems that introverted parents often have extroverted children or children who long to be more social than their antisocial parents would prefer. I think that’s the case with my daughter who, despite a self-proclamation that she’s “shy,” understands people and social situations far better than I do. I owe it to her to get out of the house and to provide her with opportunities to be near others. And I owe it to her to model an example of friendliness or, at minimum, cordiality, with our neighbors, with other parents, and with the other people who greet us as we move through our days. She makes me stretch, always, and it never really gets easier for me, but I hope it benefits her.

What fictional mother do you most admire?

Right now? Probably Eva Mercy in Tia Williams’ latest book, Seven Days in June. I found her so relatable, as the single writer-mom of a tween. She seemed fully committed to motherhood, to her career, and to healing the wounds of an intense, traumatic childhood. 

What fictional mother gets on your nerves?

Definitely Olivia Cary in Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Comedy, American Style. She’s a woman who marries not for love but for her Black husband’s white-looking complexion. She hopes that they’ll have children light enough to pass and it isn’t until their third child, Oliver, is born, much browner than anyone else in the family, that her master plan to have a white-passing family is dashed. Not only does her hatred and abuse of Oliver lead to his demise but her manipulation of her older children also ruins their lives. She’s among the worst fictional moms I’ve ever encountered. 

What’s the best motherhood advice you’ve ever gotten?

When my daughter was little, my mother told me that we never know who we gave birth to. Our kids have minds of their own. They don’t reason the way we do. They won’t necessarily make the choices that we would. And that means they have an endless capacity to surprise us. I’ve found that to be true more times than I can count. 

My aunt always says, “Eat the elephant one bite at a time.” I’m prone to taking too long a view of motherhood. I’m thinking not just about what to do about a single challenge my daughter’s facing at 11 but also about what she might have to confront at 15 and 18 and 25 and 30. I’ll be like, “I don’t know the first thing about how to handle [insert thing that hasn’t happened yet and may never happen, but already looms larger than anything else in my immediate view].” [My aunt’s] advice always reels me back in, if for no other reason than the shock of the imagery.

What are three words your kid would use to describe you?

She frequently describes me as “stressed.” But what she means when she says that is “annoyed” or “impatient.” She’d also describe me as loving and helpful. I hope that makes up for “stressed.”


Stacia Brown is a public radio producer, podcast creator and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She’s a columnist for Slate’s parenting advice column, Dear Care and Feeding, and she produces her 11-year-old daughter’s middle-grade novel review micro-podcast, Story on Stories, as well as Hope Chest, a personal essay podcast about motherhood. Learn more about her and her work at stacialbrown.com/about.

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A smiling woman floating in water.

Notes on the Ancestral, Collective & Personal Body

I feel, therefore I can be free

– Audre Lorde

 

personal & collective body

I have come to learn that my body is not just my body—it’s an accumulation of freshly scarred histories embellishing the surface of my skin. My body is flesh, soul and history, a combination of intergenerational teachings passed down through lifetimes. My body is woven by threads of ancestors who came before, their ropes tie knots of unrelenting anguish into my cells. Buried within me, a legacy of brittle disempowerment yet to be healed, juxtaposed by a phenomenal strength that bears stories of wisdom, intertwined into my very breath, wrapped around my lungs, pulsating through my blood. I have been transporting stories, both personal and part of the collective through my body, with my body. Collective/ancestral stories occupy my genetics, harvest a crop of tight braids that I am learning to live, learning to loosen, learning to distinguish. Personal stories materialise from outside, settling, at first on the peripheries of my margins, shaped in feelings and silhouettes of consequential experiences. Arriving through love or by branding me inwardly with pain. Later, becoming part of my form, rearranging the way I carry weight or breathe caution.

 

origin of inherited stories

Some of the stories living in me arise from the feminine; speaking of her pain through sharp edges of defiant truth—teaching me that the immense capacity to feel straddles the colossal capacity to break. Both fractions of reality are contrasted amidst their own individual complexities of existing, the spaces between them inextricably fragile. The spaces between them, essential to inhabit, if I am to be free, if I am to feel completely.

Other stories within me embody masculine energies, rough with abandonment, conveying ancient history in deeds that shattered trust between my foremothers and forefathers’ kin. These energies cement the walls in this body built from bricks of fear. In an effort to heal, I rethread torn bonds, contextualise their binding, attempt to plait back together the missing histories of my life. These stories, known through oration and felt in bone, nestle into my flesh and whisper a complex history of displacement; assembling my body out of shape when I neglect to take up my space.

 

shaping body

These shared stories gathered in bodies, passed down in bodies, shape my body, carve my edges through genetics, malleable by nurture, they passed down trauma, and thus I cannot discern myself from the tangling of them unto me. I am searching for my stories, untangling myself out from my inheritance in a world that views my body as minority.  As a light-skinned, mixed race, queer body of colour I intersect on many margins. Painfully aware of my privilege from a systemic angle. Living the complexity of existing in mixed skin, a story I am yet to write, a story my body intrinsically knows.

Where are you really from? I have shapeshifted my form by gentling the nuances of my body, hiding in spaces where I remain unseen. I’m from the earth. In every white centred space, I locate an accumulative notion that my body is different, it shifts through my cells, weighs my heart, changes my breath. In Black and Brown spaces, I clench the guilt of colourism. Histories have implicated all people of colour in the violence of orientating towards whiteness, shapeshifting to whiteness—knowing my lightness separates me from Black, as does my darkness from white. This reality sculpts the legacy my body represents.

 

inhabiting body

The skin of my soma has, at times, been difficult to inhabit. I’ve let my body dissociate from feeling, permitting it to become so closed I didn’t notice the pleasure of touch. Suspicious of other bodies, male bodies whose eyes burn into me with the offence of desire I do not return. Wrapped my body in layers of protection, yet neglected to protect it from myself, words like this body isn’t worthy, cut-throat my cells. I morphed my body to Mother body, rejoiced in the sacredness of my baby’s body inside of me; pure love. I grew a child who taught me the wonder of hugs.

 

healing body

I am learning to encompass the multifaceted presence of ancestral/collective and personal stories, separating the inherited and alchemizing the ones from this lifetime. I begin unravelling the great mystery of life bound between I (personal) and other (collective), which forms the fabric of my human experience. The collective stories intermingling with my being have shaped me in ways I am still trying to unravel. I begin untangling the knots, loosening these places. Beginning to grow broader in relationship to myself; a process of continuously delving into my patterns of behaviour, my ancestry, my embodied stories, and our collective spaces for healing—reshaping them with new shards of awareness.

This practice requires me to meet every edge of my blended self in the face of another, letting the other inside the boundary of my skin, whilst I reciprocate this action towards them – and witness whilst being witnessed. Seeing whilst being seen, engaging in the nature of reciprocity and listening with my entire body. It requires sharing the intimacy of close proximity and holding another without judgment, by valuing each moment of movement transpiring between us, in spite of our inevitable human nature. It requires perpetually entering the unknown realms of shadow eclipsed by dull light and allowing the unconscious to surface in these patterns. By feeling into the very essence of each ancestral story of movement murmuring from the depths of self and offering them space to breathe.

 

The mystery of healing never ceases to be less mysterious, yet it becomes more tangible, more capacious as I move through the spaces opening and closing between I and other. I open my body to its form and commit to assembling it with new stories whilst honouring my inheritance. I decide to grow towards wholeness, the way flowers leap towards the sun.


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I Need to Tell You About My Mother

I need to tell you something. 

I need to tell you that my mother isn’t ugly. 

I was always told that she was. Nobody said it out loud. No one threw fruit, broke mirrors, or howled at the moon when she passed. The u-word was never spoken directly to her face or mine. But when people spoke about her, it was obvious. They talked about her hair, her skin, her size, her face as though they were all somehow wrong. The things she was born with—the hair from her scalp, the color of her skin, the size of her thighs and stomach, her tiny smile—these were all deficiencies. They were lazy, unkempt, unwanted, even when she took good care of them. 

Nobody ever spoke to my mother softly. Nobody asked her if she was alright. Nobody made sure she was safe. Nobody went with her to the store late at night or plumped her pillows when she returned. Nobody treated her like she was precious. I never saw anyone take care of my mother. I never heard anyone call my mother “pretty.” But I did hear people tell me that I looked just like her.  

 

I was about 13, and my father and his mother found an old picture of my mother. We don’t have many. My mother grew up poor and has always hated taking pictures. This is the only picture I remember of my mother before she was my mother, when she was a teenager, before she even knew she wanted to be a mother, before she realized she didn’t want to be one after it was already too late. It’s her senior picture, and in it she has a short afro, a close-lipped smile and a hopeful face. She’s in three-quarter profile to the camera, and you can see the regularity of her features, the mediumness of them. I inherited this. Our noses, lips, and eyes are not big but not small. Her hair is kinky. (Mine is, too.) Her eyelashes are short. (Mine are not.) Her skin is clear and brown and she looks, at 17, much the same way that she did at 25 and 38 and even at 52—the last time we spoke. I also have changed very little over the years between becoming an adult and maintaining adulthood. In the picture, my mother is a girl on the cusp of a very onerous womanhood. My father and his own mother looked at the picture, the sole happy memory of my mother’s girlhood displayed proudly on the fridge after being sent from an aunt back East, and said, “Well, at least she got a little better with age.”

The picture disappeared soon after. I think my mother overheard. 

I don’t remember my reaction. Maybe I gasped, maybe I laughed, maybe just shifted uncomfortably where I sat at the kitchen table doing homework while they decided my mother’s whole value with their eyes. I must have done something to draw notice to myself because my dad looked over and suddenly said, “Whew, you look just like your mother when you make that face.”

The backhanded compliments were constant, not only from family but from friends, church members, and colleagues. There was always the implication that if my mother fixed herself up or did something about herself she would suddenly become more acceptable, more presentable, more lovable. It was clear that if she just tried harder to destroy herself, she would be beautiful at last.

So, she tried. She tried hard, but it was never quite right. She straightened her hair, curled it, burned it all off, wore wigs, wore braids. She spent money on Mary Kay, Fashion Fair, Black Opal. She painted her face on when she went out and washed it off in the sink every night, tired. She stretched her eye makeup too far past the expiration date and got a stye over her eye that none of her children said anything about for a week, scared of drawing her temper. When I finally mentioned it, she snarled at me for not loving her enough to notice, but she went to the doctor the next day. She dieted obsessively, worked out in her office gym, subjected us all to fad health foods and strange ingredients. I once saw her cry and pray for forgiveness over a yogurt that she’d decided to eat after a three-day fast. It was the only thing she’d eaten for days, and she’d just been on the phone with someone crowing over how “victorious” she felt, how “triumphant” she was over the enemy who prowled and attacked in the form of fat and salt and sugar.  I sat at the table, doing my homework, and she stood over the sink, looking at a tiny pot of Dannon like it was the apple Eve ate. I said nothing to her as I watched. She spoke only to God, then bound Satan as he tempted her in the form of a strawberry yogurt before she ate him up. She stayed fat. There was nothing wrong with her fat body. It bore and raised five children. It’s still out there somewhere now, existing healthily on its way into its 6th decade.

 

I can see the question forming in all of you reading this. So, did you struggle with your looks? Did you try hard not to look like your mother? Were you ashamed of being seen with her? Were you scarred by the comparisons?

No. I never thought my mother was ugly. I never minded looking like her. My mother isn’t ugly. She’s just Black, and a woman.

She has the unambiguous skin, eyes, and hair of a Black woman. There was nothing abnormal about her body (and even if there was, so what?). She just didn’t naturally perform beauty in a way that was culturally comfortable. As a result, her beauty was not obligatory, purchasable, or immediate. My mother is beautiful in a way that cannot be acquired, and therefore is not often recognized. She suffered for it, but I never agreed with those who tried to steal it from her with their words.

I never agreed with the sideways things my father’s family said about her. I never agreed with the way people “encouraged” her to wear more makeup, diet more, and wear red. (My mother looks good in red. The people lining up to call her unattractive were the same ones who said that red was a strong color, and women should be careful wearing it lest too many people look at them. But she was ugly, right? Nobody would look, or they were wrong.)

I never thought my mother was ugly. I had eyes. I had a sense of aesthetics. I had my own opinions and thoughts. I thought my mother was beautiful, and I was happy to look like her. 

So, when I was forced to process my hair and wear frilly clothes as a child to head off my inherited looks at the pass, I didn’t resent my mother for it. I resented the people who refused to really look at us. When I was simultaneously told to eat something because it didn’t matter what the boys thought and not to eat too much so that I didn’t get too big for the boys to like, I kept my mouth shut and let people think I was developing a complex because the discussion of that person’s cooking was potentially a much more hurtful thing. They didn’t know they couldn’t cook, but I knew I wasn’t ugly.

I also learned, from watching my mother and her well-meaning tormentors, that the problem of being considered ugly when you aren’t isn’t solved by working to become more beautiful. The same people who treated her badly when she didn’t look the way they wanted, treated her worse when she tried. When things went wrong—like the time a hairdresser damaged her scalp so badly with a relaxer that it all fell out and didn’t grow back properly for years—she was treated as though she’d done this to herself on purpose. When she cried over the loss of her hair, nobody reassured her, comforted her, loved her. They simply told her more things she could do to look better. When she lost weight, she was told she was getting too skinny. When she gained weight, she was told she was getting too fat. Other women would join in and whine about how frustrated they were, how tired and sad they felt when their husbands and mothers and sisters and friends and the rest of the world told them they were too fat to be beautiful, to be desirable. They kept getting pregnant and kept being told that the resulting rolls around their stomachs and dimples on their thighs were disgusting and would keep a man from ever wanting to touch them again, that fat women were lonely women, that fat women deserved to be alone. They kept getting pregnant. That’s not a thing you do alone.

I can hear another question, small and distant. Did she treat you badly because you have her face? Did your mother think you were ugly, too?

Yes. No. Maybe. I’ll never really be sure.

I watched my mother my whole life. I watched her paint her face, draw in her eyebrows. I watched her diet get weirder as she got bigger, as though unhappiness was expanding the borders of her cells one by one and creating space for her body despite her attempts to stop it. I watched her buy clothes in the right sizes, feel guilty, and never wear those clothes. I watched her groom herself in ways that burned her skin, her scalp, her fingers and her pride. I watched her try constantly to be someone else’s idea of beautiful and felt sad for her when it never went quite right. My mother’s real beauty wasn’t bought, and so when she tried to buy it, it sat like oil on water, never blending together smoothly. Still, I grudgingly accepted it as she tried to pass all of this on to me. Then I worked out my own ways of resistance.

I stayed quiet when men in the room would make comments about my skin, my hair, my face, and their acceptability as though that was somehow the only metric by which I gained value. I stayed quiet when my mother would later rail against the men for their comments—every man who made eye contact was a pervert to my mother—then punish me for drawing attention in the first place. I stayed quiet when other little girls—ones with lighter skin or longer hair or smaller, more touchable bodies—got things I wanted, things that seemed to signify attention and love. I realized that the system was built in a way that didn’t work for me. I didn’t believe I was ugly, and I didn’t want love based on bought beauty. So, I never really tried to follow those rules, and I realized that people thought I wasn’t trying because I was defective in some way. After all, look at my mother. 

I wore makeup two shades too light to church once. I knew it was too light. I wanted to see if someone would say something. My younger sister tried but was shushed because, finally, I was trying. I was trying to be pretty. Maybe I could make myself better. Why discourage my attempts, even though it made me look ridiculous? Looking silly meant that maybe I was worth something.

I began to distrust the eyes of other people. I ignored comments on my looks. I wore big jeans, big shoes, big T-shirts. As soon as I was expected to pay for my own hair maintenance, I spent a year growing out my relaxer in huge and ugly ways, then another year paying for the inconvenience, bad customer service, tension headaches and disappointment of braids. All that work, all that money, all that annoyance and discomfort only for someone to tell you that you have become more lovable due to something that isn’t even you? Something that isn’t real? Something that was ugly to create? My distrust of the beauty gatekeepers deepened. 

When I was 19, I decided to escape the system entirely. I shaved my head. My family protested, insulted, complained. My grandmother told me the news of my haircut was like cutting her with a knife. My father told me that not even a white boy would want me after what I had done. 

My mother began to resent me.

It hurt, but I realized that even if I grew my hair long, I would never be beautiful enough for the people who wanted me to try to be beautiful in the first place. I realized that none of the roads to anything I truly wanted began with another person’s idea of beauty. I looked in the mirror and saw my mother’s pretty face on my happy, curious spirit and I felt joy. I started to buy dresses that I liked. I wore makeup that matched my color. I did these things when I felt like it, and only then. My big jeans and T-shirts stayed in my wardrobe.  Men still spoke to me on the streets. The comments ranged from “You’re gorgeous, beautiful” to “Hey ma” to “Ugh, look at that. I’d never hit that,” depending on what I was wearing. So, I began to speak back. When it was about something besides themselves or my desire to be wanted by them, the conversations ended quickly. Men were speaking to their ideas of beauty, but never to me. Men were speaking to my youth and were expecting to be allowed to drain it. Men were speaking to my mind as though it wasn’t there. 

I stopped sleeping with men for a while. I’m not attracted to women. That was tough. My mother told me my life was nothing because I wasn’t good enough to attract a man to give me children. I got sick. She put me out on the street, told me to use what God gave me to find a man to take care of me because it wasn’t her job. We stopped speaking. I’m still learning how not to resent her for that. I still think she’s beautiful. It still hurts that she doesn’t see the same in me. 

 

I can see something else forming in your eyes, not a question this time but a comment. You want to say, “But you’re beautiful! You’re gorgeous! I’ve always thought you were super hot/sexy/cute/pretty! You shouldn’t let society get you down like this.”

If that’s all you have to say after reading all of this, then you’re missing the point.

I don’t really need to tell you about the way that society cheapens beauty, makes it a thing we have to buy, not embody, something to possess, not create.  I don’t need to tell you how society strangles women and tries to make our only value our physical beauty and the sacrifices we make to maintain it. I don’t need to tell you how we’re crushed by impossible standards that make our personalities about our bodies, our bodies about our personalities, and our place in society about our ability to disappear into a concept of near-perfect desirability that no one truly possesses. I don’t need to tell you about how Black women, specifically, are treated like Schrödinger’s hoes—simultaneously too ugly to be desired and so hypersexual that everything we do is dangerous because it might provoke desire. I don’t need to tell you any of these things because we know them. We live them. We struggle with them and how to balance desire, expectation, and our natural bodies in a society that judges us all very harshly on how we look. I don’t need to tell you how that affects our children and how difficult it truly is to raise beautiful girls who cannot be crushed.

 I also don’t need to tell you that the answers to questions and criticisms about beauty are never easy. I don’t need to tell you that navigating beauty as a woman in the world is also not easy, and we are often rewarded for believing that we are all too ugly and spending our lives trying not to be. I don’t need to tell you that we are often punished for embodying our own beauty in a world that profits from convincing us that we have no natural beauty in ourselves. I don’t need to tell you these things because you already know them all.

But I do need to tell you that I never thought my mother was ugly.      

Neither are you.       

Be sure to tell your children.


Image courtesy of Yayra Nutakor on Pexels

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Jenny Lumet | Mama’s Writing

 

Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, curated by Deesha Philyaw.


What three words describe you as a writer?

Disciplined, driven, curious.

What fictional mother gets on your nerves?

Kanga. From Winnie the Pooh. She only existed to be a pouch. WTF Kanga.

What makes you a bad-ass mother?

I’m willing to learn from my kids.

What are three words your kid(s) would use to describe you?

“Needs to get out more”  That’s 5 words but…

What’s the worst motherhood advice you’ve ever gotten?

Almost everything from the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

How has parenting bolstered (or inhibited) your creativity?

My creative life and my parenting life really started at the same time. I wouldn’t have a creative life without my kids. Is that weird?

How has motherhood shaped your relationship with the world?

If the world looks at my kids cross-eyed, there’s a scorched earth policy that comes into play.  So there’s that. But I’m certainly a better citizen.


Jenny Lumet is the screenwriter of Rachel Getting Married for which she received the 2008 New York Film Critics Circle Award, 2008 Toronto Film Critics Association Award and 2008 Washington D.C Film Critics Association Award. She also received a 2008 NAACP Image Award. She is also the writer of the screen adaptations of The Center Cannot Hold and The Language of Flowers, and she served as a script doctor on the films Remember Me, Bobbie Sue, Honeymoon with Harry, and The Mummy. Lumet serves as co-creator and showrunner of the upcoming CBS All Access series The Man Who Fell to Earth.She is presently an executive producer on Star Trek: Discovery, and a co-executive producer on Star Trek: Picard, and is a co-Creator and executive producer on the upcoming Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

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Chef for the Day

1.

A food photo? A tray full of broccoli and peppers—jungle green, marigold yellow, and vermilion—pops open in a text from Cabral. What’s this from my babychile! You beam and coo out loud, safe with no one around to hear or judge your pet name for a married man over 30. Those roasted veggies look good enough to be the cover art of some foodie website. So olive-oil glazed and crunchy-crisp, you want to reach into the screen. You cringe at what your own dinner options include. But these veggies are fresh from an oven, and you recognize the hairy hand in the mitt pulling them out. The picky eater? You blurt out, What? No message comes with the picture. On Cabral’s end, apparently he expects just that reaction. He’s chuckling, leaving just enough time for your sputter before he follows up: Yo, Mom. Making dinner. Looks good huh.

 

2.

In the after-work grog that nails you to the sofa, doors slam repeatedly. Above the sleep surface that din turns out to be kitchen cabinets. The steady, jerky sequence means the slammer doesn’t know where you keep things. Deep quiet, then bursts of the fridge yawning, chunking. Naj finally shakes your shoulder in hopes of finding garlic. Now he’s busy; the peeling and pounding you hear suggests he’s redeeming those weary buds you bought on impulse, weeks ago. Sublime, a word you hardly ever find cause to use, comes due. Remember, Mom, those cooking shows I used to watch on PBS? Sure, you do. The Cajun Cook, decades ago. Firstborn enters a meditative zone, doing food. Camo cargos over lime green sneaker-feet, at attentive ease. He glides between a heavy-sizzling left burner and a roiling right-side pot. He sambas in an unaproned soccer jersey. Brazil. Unprotected from a saucepan, it swerves. Catches only the splatter of a few dance moves.

 

3.

You have winnowed this speech down to three or four sentences, starting with your double-standard buster: Being the only woman in the house does not mean you were put on the Earth to feed them. With plain words you lasso the moment, leveled and calm: Everybody at this table eats, so everybody should cook. Looping the logic with a question—Is that true?—you tie it to a plan: seven blank spaces on a piece of paper that reads, Chef for the Day. 

This family meeting, one of those which you alone convene, goes worse than usual. A high-pitched quiet plays out among the three you live with: knotted husband shoulders, furrowed eighth-grade brows, and squirming third-grade sneakers. You want the joy of feeling a lifted yoke, the joy of seeing this family put the rut to rest and walk a feminist walk through manhood. You want the shared work of feeding to open their hearts in some way not yet revealed. None of this bears saying, so you watch the empty paper float between two sons and one husband. The quiet seems unyielding. Just before Plan B crosses your lips, Naj snatches the paper. I got Monday and Wednesday. And The Cooking Schedule Years begin.

 

4.

Few who see your modulated burst into 30th Street Station know you’re carrying a gong. It hangs where your lungs and heart should be. You’re just a well-preserved middle-ager in scruffy black Uggs, whose spiraling locs overhang a fuchsia coat—cute but too thin for March. Clearly, you’re no stranger to this station. Nothing slows your eyes; your gaze sweeps past the homeless. Pushes aside the strutters, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels stand, and tantruming toddlers. Sorting, sorting for the one moon you’ve seen rise through its twenty years of phases. One husky, hoodied, curly-bearded face. Who sees you first and tips around the room to sneak up and tap, spin you backwards, giggling. Your gong’s clang marks the start of his Spring Break. 

Yeah so, I’ve been baking lately. Gonna make y’all some bread while I’m home. One heavy arm drapes on you while he asks a favor, as if you’d refuse: I’ll need a few supplies. Flour and yeast. Lots of yeast. Do we have a rolling pin by chance? Winking at you, the breadoholic who lent him the gene.

 

5.

Naj is caramelizing onions. You’ve learned to stay out of his way when he’s cooking after the lecture you got for disparaging the value of paprika. Waiting for the dinner bell, you and the Mister tip around upstairs like kids on Christmas. The sight of his lithe performances, always matched to tunage of some sort, makes it hard.  

Playing stealth, you cut through the dining room and peek at a distance. He knows. Ma. Let me show you something. Long graceful fingers press the knife into celery; he tilts his head to wave you out of hiding. Those almost-black doe eyes fix on his point but soften to ensure that you understand. He knows how you approach cooking. You, the one who ended up Chef for the Day only once out of every seven. He holds forth about the science of savory. Fats and salts. The value of fresh basil over store-bought. When dinner comes, you and the Mister swoon by the forkful. Naj takes in the praise like a curl of air. You suspect that he smiles on the inside, but outside, it looks like a shrug.

 

6.

These men you made can burn. And far more joy arises from what they do than you bargained for. Thinking and planning, ordering those plans and imagining. Reading, calculating, refining their senses. Connecting to their elders through a task women have so typically been pressed to do. Savoring their emotions by learning how it feels to labor for the sustenance of others or simply their own. Cooking centers their spirits, teaches them about needs, wants, and paths to satisfying both. Did you have all that in mind with the cooking schedule? 

Your husband cooks. Most of Thanksgiving dinner is his doing. You wanted to ensure that they became men like him. Men who don’t passively receive, waiting and expecting, weighing someone else down. You wanted to stir them actively into the work of being a family.

And yes, you wanted to know what being called to eat and sitting down first would feel like. A wholesome bliss that seems unspeakable, except for a tradition the four of you began with Chef for the Day: Thanks to the cook.


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