Clutching each child’s hand, I shoulder open the glass door of the little grocery and salivate at the spicy smell of hot sausage-and-egg biscuits. Almost two dollars each. Out of my price range. I tighten my grip on wriggling fingers.
“Mama, I’m hungry.” Alex’s brown eyes flash. He snags a shiny orange with his free hand and copycat Josh rips a plump banana from its bunch. I pry open my sons’ fingers before they can break open the peels, and return the out-of-budget fruits to a higher shelf. Their shrieks of protest stab my ears. Their hunger gnaws my heart.
“Can I help you?” The store clerk in her tidy uniform looks old enough to be a grandma, but her stern voice sounds anything but helpful. She glares hard at our backpacks. Didn’t she see me put the fruit back?
“No thank you, ma’am. Just deciding what to buy for breakfast.”
She grasps my elbow and motions toward the checkout counter. “I have to ask you to empty out your packs.”
I shake off her hand. “We didn’t take anything.” Yeah, we’re poor, but we’re not thieves.
“Mama took my orange.” Alex juts out his chin.
“I want the ’nana.” Josh crosses skinny arms over his chest.
The woman wags a finger at us. “I need you to empty those backpacks.”
“I’ve got nothing to hide.” Jaw clenched, I herd my boys to the checkout and shake my tattered pack upside down over her counter. My hands tremble as I guide Alex and Josh to empty their child-sized Amazing Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk book bags. Satisfied?
The woman scrutinizes our thin blanket and small pile of dirty shirts, pants, and mismatched socks. She avoids touching our stuff, but presses and loosens her lips, fishlike, as if we’ve disappointed her.
I scoop our paltry belongings back into the packs and whisk my children away while she sprays Lysol on her counter.
The taste of shame rises from my empty belly. Is this what she wants—to humiliate me in front of my children? Blood throbs in my ears.
News commentators on Heartland Radio chatter over loudspeakers about that weird Y2K bug. Power grids could crash and planes could fall from the sky at midnight, they say, on the last day of the century. That’s only a few months away. One more lousy thing to worry about.
Maybe the clerk’s afraid the Y2K bug is a killer virus and she’ll catch it from us.
If it were just me, I’d exit pronto and set off the fire alarm. But my sons are famished and I will not allow their hunger to wait another second on account of her self-appointed security guard role. Food’s a top priority for their three- and four-year-old bellies.
At the aisle’s end, in a half-price bucket, I’m relieved to find a small, ready-to-expire bag of trail mix and two packets of instant maple oatmeal.
I count out my crumpled dollars and coins at the clerk’s spotless counter. She rubs the bills between her thumb and fingertips as if they’re fake. Or stolen.
Must she grind me into the dirt? Shake it off, Talitha. Get a grip, I scold myself. No way will I let her attitude spoil our meal.
I place an oatmeal packet in each boy’s hand and say in my cheery mom voice, “Let’s make breakfast.”
They jiggle at the pop dispenser while I pour the dry oats into a big Styrofoam cup, trickle water from the spout, nuke it till foam rises, and sprinkle nuts and raisins on top.
The clerk mutters as we pass her counter. “Babies spawning babies.”
At nineteen, I’m no baby. But her words sting. How does someone get that bitter?
We exit the store and head up the bike trail toward the creek. Mothers jog by pushing baby strollers. I carry our hot breakfast and a cup of cold water. Alex’s job is to carry the napkins. Josh guards the plastic spoons.
“On your left.” A bell grinds and a girl in a hot pink jumpsuit pedals around us on her bike, blonde pony-tail wagging. She looks carefree, pedaling up the trail toward the walking bridge. It’d be nice to feel that freedom again, for a little while. It’d be nice to be in school, too. Haven’t been there since 1994. You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Dad said that song was the story of his life. I miss you, Dad. Alex and Josh would’ve adored you.
A flat sandstone rock invites us to a morning picnic. We shed shoes, dangle our feet in the shallow water of the creek, and take turns digging into the lukewarm oatmeal.
“It was good.” Alex burps, voice husky for a four-year-old.
“I want more.” Josh’s clear voice is eager, the dimples in his tawny cheeks deep.
“All gone.” I nuzzle my baby’s fluffy, dark curls. “Don’t worry. There’ll be more food.” Somewhere. I’ll get it for you, son.
He looks up to shine warm brown eyes into mine. There’s a pleading and a trusting in their glow that almost scares me.
I can’t let my boys down. I won’t.
Three pennies remain in my pocket.
Butterflies inside my stomach beat frantic, fragile wings.
In the late summer heat, the creek burbles around jutting rocks. Velvet-winged monarchs flit and slurp nectar from wild sunflowers. “Look at the pretty butterflies, boys. They’re filling their bellies for their long trip south to Mexico.”
Without warning, a powerful shadow sweeps over the sparkling water. Gives me chills.
“Look!” Alex points to the humongous bird that glides so close we can almost touch her white ski mask and hooked yellow beak.
She rises on wings that seem to span the creek, feathers shining gold in the sun. Gnarled talons clutch a wriggling fish, weeds dripping from its fins. A mama bringing home breakfast for her babies. A thrilling sight I’ve only seen a couple times. Once, when fishing with Dad.
My sons and I gawk in wonder as the eagle’s fingerlike wingtips trace the winding creek until bird and silver ribbon dissolve into sky.
Dad taught me to appreciate the out-of-doors. I’ll pass along his love of nature as a family treasure. One that lasts.
“Looks like we all found breakfast.” I pull my boys close and hope they won’t hear the wild thumping of my heart as it wonders if this could be our last meal.
So much untamed beauty around us—monarch butterflies, a great bald eagle—yet my children and I aren’t part of it. Tomorrow, the eagle mama will catch another fish and bring it home to her babies. Aren’t my sons as valuable?
Something rumbles across the walking bridge. Not the rotating tickle of a ten-speed, but something weightier plays the weathered old bridge one side to the other like a colossal wooden xylophone. Except every plank makes the same note.
“Mama, it’s back!” Alex twists out of my bear hug, eager to run.
“Can I go see?” Josh jumps to his feet. “Can I?”
The vehicle that crossed the bridge beeps up the bike trail toward the picnic shelter.
“You’d better hurry.” It’s free entertainment. “Don’t get too close.”
My aspiring engineers scramble up the bank and across the bridge, following the toy-like babble of the odd little sweeper we watched yesterday—bigger than a golf cart but smaller than a regular garbage truck. They gaze transfixed. The mechanical arm lifts and tips a trash can into a mini-dumpster on the back of the truck, beeping a friendly warning to stay out of its way. I love how excited they get over things grown-ups don’t even notice anymore.
I catch up and Josh begs, “Play at park?”
“Stay in the playground where I can see you.” It’s a huge city park with lots of trees and shrubs to hide behind. In my not-so-long-ago childhood, little kids played hide and seek without parents giving a second thought. Now, you never know who’s lurking behind a bush. And it’s not just strangers that worry me. It’s only been a few months since I left my sons’ father, and I still flinch when footsteps sound behind me.
Alex and Josh take off in a rush toward the swings and the wooden fort with its green twisty slides. They kick off their shoes and dive into the warm sand.
I settle with our packs on a bench by the swings.
Playground’s empty today, except for one old woman on a bench.
Josh scurries to me for his pack and fishes out the plastic spoons from breakfast. He and Alex dig a racetrack in the sand and rev engines on two little die-cast cars some child left behind.
While they play, I’ll brainstorm and come up with a plan. Soon it’ll be too cold to sleep outside at night. The three pennies in my pocket won’t pay for a roof overhead.
Not that a roof is everything. We had one with their father, but it couldn’t protect us from his storms. I shiver and peer over my shoulder. Safe, for now.
A breeze stirs and a song drifts into my space—an unfamiliar tune in an unknown language. On the next bench, the elderly woman raises her hands and her voice skyward. In her vibrant purple head wrap and long multi-colored dress, she seems out of place at a playground in the middle of the heartland.
The singer’s face gleams like burnished bronze. A restless movement in her voice conjures up images of palm branches rustling on a windy beach—a scene I recall from a book. I’ve never seen a real palm tree, except once, at an indoor swimming pool.
“Good morning,” says the stranger, her accent thick as hot fudge.
She appears to be staring at the swings, but I’m certain she’s greeting me. I wait. She may be an old woman, but what if she’s somebody’s decoy? I push away memories of another park. I should’ve never trusted that couple. Their decoy was a boy Alex’s age. Maybe when my kids are grown I’ll take them there and tell them what happened. Maybe I won’t.
“I am a mother, too.” She’s still not looking at me. “It is a beautiful day and I am alone. Will you come and sit with me?” She pats the open space beside her on the bench.
People ask too many questions. I should grab my kids and run. But the sun on my face whispers, “Stay a while.” Wasn’t the eagle a sign? No eagle’s ever betrayed me.
“I need to keep an eye on my boys.”
“You can watch them from here. We both have ears. Come, let us talk.”
Again, I hedge. Snoopy women who act friendly often turn out to be snakes. I’ve learned the hard way to lie, to hide. Sometimes I know when to run.
But it’s not like this park is isolated. Runners and bicycle riders stream by every few moments. The woman hums a pleasant tune, raising her palms to catch warm rays of sun. Her singing doesn’t sound like a threat. On impulse, I grab our backpacks and go sit next to her, surprising myself. Alex and Josh notice my new lookout point and dash to sit beside me, jostling for space on the bench. They bring the toy cars but leave their shoes behind in the sand.
Alex cups a hand to my ear. “Stranger danger?”
“We’ll see.” I rub his shoulder. He’s learned a lot this summer.
Fearless Josh squashes a bug on his arm and smears blood.
The woman turns her wrinkled face toward me. I’m startled by her eyes—devoid of color, smudged by a grayish film. An innocent white cane leans against her knees. It seems to scold me for being too cautious. If the cane had ears, I’d tell it some people can’t be trusted.
“Thank you for sitting with me.” Her voice is warm and tender.
“You’re welcome.” I shift on the bench, uncertain what to say.
She raises her bony arms skyward, launching another tune in her mysterious language. I’m drawn by its beauty, each note a vibrating color. Her voice sounds neither gray nor dull like her eyes. Rather, it shimmers, like a late afternoon rainbow. Two recognizable words emerge. “Abba,” and “Father.”
My sons grin and sway with the singing, till her voice rises to a high note she holds and caresses. Just when it seems she’ll run out of breath, she stops and applauds briskly, arms held high. Alex and Josh clap too, slapping their sandy hands together.
I keep my mouth shut, wondering what in the world she’s clapping about.
She exclaims, “O great Abba Father!”
Oh—great. A religious fanatic.
Alex leans around me and tells her, “Guess what? I’m four.” He waves the correct number of fingers in her face and embarrassment floods mine.
I grasp his fingers and whisper, “She can’t see your hand. She’s blind.” She can’t see my flushed face, either.
His eyes cloud with puzzlement, but he pats Josh’s head. “Here’s my little brother. Say how old you are, Josh.”
“I’m free.” My baby holds out three stubby fingers, struggling to keep his pinkie from popping up.
“What is your name, ma’am?” I want to get off the subject of age. Yeah, I look older than nineteen, but she can’t see that.
“Here in America, I am called ‘Miss Ella.’” Her leathery face crinkles into a smile. “I am happy to meet you. Two of my grandsons back home are the same age as your sons. What may I call you?”
“It’s tough to pronounce.” I stall.
“Well, I can say it, and spell it.” Alex volunteers. “My mama’s name is Ta-leee-tha. Spelled T-a-l-i-t-h-a.”
“It’s the bestest name in the whole world!” Josh spreads his arms.
Miss Ella lets out a whistle. “I knew somebody named Talitha back home in Liberia.”
Goosebumps—the good kind—tingle my arms. “I’ve never met anyone, anywhere, with my name.”
“It is not common.” She lowers her voice. “It is a blessed name, my child.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I search her face. All these years I thought it was jinxed, and nobody told me otherwise. “When I was a kid, I wished for something normal—like Tabitha. Teachers could never pronounce my name right on the first day of school.”
“My dear child.” She stares at me with unseeing, yet penetrating eyes. “Do you not know that your name is from the story of an amazing miracle?”
Nobody ever told me that either. “A miracle and a Talitha in the same story?” Sounds too good to be true. “I don’t believe in miracles.” My life’s been anything but.
“Um-um-um.” She shakes her head, the sounds escaping closed lips. I get the feeling she’s going to hug me like a consoling mama bear, but she holds back.
I edge away.
“Listen to me,” she scolds in the firm but gentle tone I sometimes use to correct my sons. “You’ve got a name to be proud of. Hear me out.”
She tilts her head as a question toward me and waits.
Is she goofy? My name’s puzzled me all my life, but nobody’s ever offered a clue as to what it means. I’d like to know.
But not right now. I set my teeth. I’ve got bigger things to worry about. I can’t get dragged into this stranger’s story when I don’t know where to find our next meal. People make stuff up, to make you stay. Buddy said we were soul mates, said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, but sometimes he treated his cars better than me and our sons. If this woman tells me something good, I don’t want to find out later it was all a big lie.
“Not now. Maybe some other time.” I dig the toes of my sneakers into the sand. But there won’t be another time. I probably won’t ever see this stranger again and I’ll lose my one chance to find out the answer to something that’s bugged me for a lifetime.
Miss Ella turns to me in a motherly sort of way. “You are not ready yet. Some things take time.” She stands, raises her arms, and erupts into another song.
Now I know she’s nuts. Here am I—a tall, bony-kneed young mother, homeless with two little kids, and she’s telling me about miracles?
Nope. I’m not buying it. But I sure could use a couple miracles right now. Even one would be nice.
Sweat trickles down my forehead and stings my eyes. How did I wind up like this, without a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out? Dad used to say that. He worked hard, so his family wouldn’t end up like that.
Cars in hand, my sons creep away to play in the sand.
Somehow, Miss Ella’s singing manages to lift my tired spirit.
I tilt my face to soak up the sunshine. It’s one of summer’s final days.
I’ll listen to one more of her songs.
Then I’ll get up.
At heart, I’m a fighter.