I was probably seven and I just arrived home from school. It was a humid hot midweek afternoon when I slugged into the straight wooden chair on the table in Mai Sila’s, my grandma’s, humble dining room. I put my hands under my chin and leaned forward on the table. I must have signed. My school finished at 12.30 but I arrived home at 3 o’clock. My backpack felt heavy and was loaded with books, miscellaneous toys, clothes and other small items. All of them too precious to leave behind and risk losing. With my feet I pushed the back pack deeper under the table and out of the way. Mai Sila looked up. “You tired, my pretty girl?” she asked.
It must have been the compassion in her voice because suddenly I felt more tired than ever. I nodded silently. I knew better than to complain. Things are as they are. I kept looking down as I knew was polite when speaking with an adult.
Her chair scraped over the wooden floor. She was attempting to stand up. Obviously, her swollen joints where painful. I knew she sat the whole morning behind her sewing machine to finish that dress that she was making for a customer. That is how she made her living. Sewing and ironing for the fancy ladies in town. Steadying herself on the chair, the table and then the wall she shuffled into her tiny kitchen. She took a plate and a spoon and ladled some food in the plate. She shuffled back to me. I sat there and stared at her. Just stare. It hit me for the first time in my life that someone loved me.
I thought. I looked at myself for the first time clearly that day. I wore a dirty crumbled white shirt and a blue pleated skirt. It was too short. I was growing so quick everybody kept telling me. I felt guilty for that. My long skinny legs were dusty from my walk to my grandma’s home. My half broken sandals were brown of the mud I stepped in that morning. I tried to take good care of shoes because I knew that I would not get knew shoes any time soon. But they had a life of their own. Soon I would need to find more green glue to paste them again. Otherwise I could not go to school. My hair was tangled. I think the last time it had been combed was last week when I spent the weekend with my grandma, Mai Sila. Yes I did look like a child without a mother. Unkempt.
But the thing is that I had a mother. A pretty one too. She was very modern, she wore red lipstick and red nail polish. I loved to look at her as she dressed to go to a party. She would have a colorful dress on. With shiny pallets. Hundreds of them. Her hair would be curled with the hot iron. She would wear makeup and high heels. And she drove. I don’t think many women drove and had their own car when I was a child. But I could be mistaken. I don’t remember other women having their own car. But my mother did. She drove her car to her work, where she stayed the whole day. She did not cook, do laundry or house chores. “Why do you think I have 4 daughters? She would ask pointedly if my older sister dare to question her.
It was complete inutile to try to explain to her that I needed something. “If you can get it, you can have it”, was her typical reaction to me when I asked for something. She never quite explained how a 7 year old should go around “finding” cooked food, clean clothes or new shoes.
Until I visited Mai Sila of course. Then I understood that I could find it all with her. And the good thing was that I didn’t even had to ask. Mai Sila would wash my clothes, press them, wash my hair, and braid those long braids that could withstand weeks of wear and tear. The funny thing is that I never saw her doing all these things. When I woke up in the morning the hot porridge would be on my plate on the table. My clean uniform would be on the chair and I never had to ask for a lunch bag. Miraculously it was in my schoolbag. She really wanted me to go to school.
I didn’t like it in the beginning. I cried to go back to my Mai Sila. But the teacher made me stay and school was actually good for me. They taught me to read there. I picked up very quickly that I could put together the letters, sound them out and read a sentence. Shy as I was I used this as a pastime and learned to read in the first 2 weeks that I was in school. I could have been a good experience until my mother found out that I could read. She realized that I was able to go to school with public transportation since I would be able to read the signs on the busses.
Every morning my 5 year old sister and I would walk for 45 minutes to the bus stop. Then I would carefully spell out the names until we found a bus that said: “Punda”. That is the one we needed. With my little sisters hand firm into mine I would step into the bus, giving the driver the exact change that my mother gave me. My sister usually slept in the bus. The walk made her very tired. I would read. I did not dare to sleep because I was terrified to miss the stop to go to school. Tired of the responsibility but satisfied we made it on time before the school started at 7.30 am I would quietly take my place in the back chair in the class. That was the best place to sit so I could finish my assignments quickly to have time to read a book without the teacher knowing it. Another morning of peace and quiet reading until the school finished at 12.30.
After school my mother would pick us up in her car. I had to be careful to look out for her. Sometimes she would sit in her car across the street outside the school, blaring her claxon, motioning with her hands for us to hurry. I held my sister’s hand firmly when I crossed the busy street full of cars going both ways. I would hurry as to not make her wait one second too long. We knew better than that. But sometimes I would be on the lookout until 1oclock, 1.30, 2oclock and 2.30 before she would show up. All teachers were gone by that time. We were the last, sitting on the stairs, waiting for our mom. She would arrive smiling and leisurely. Not a word of explanation, not a word of concern. She should have noticed the tear stricken face of my little sister. But she never mentioned it. I never did either. I knew better than that.
Sitting that day on that table of Mai Sila I got it. Suddenly I understood what was missing in my life. The reason I felt so alone and scared most of the time. I missed a mother. One that would talk soft with me. One that would care for me. That is what Mai Sila just did. I knew it for the first time but it stuck to me for my whole life. Mai Sila loved me. Yes she did.