by Julia M. Washington
My people have been farmers since before they came to the states. Mama’s side cultivated grapes, raised cows and produced dairy. Daddy’s side grew food. Farming in some ways was in our blood. When Mama and Daddy married, they moved to California and left farm life behind. Daly City in the seventies wasn’t exactly the mecca of agriculture, which might have been the appeal.
Daddy’s parents moved to the central valley, just about an hour and half east, before I was born; bought themselves a few acres so Papa could still exercise his green thumb. Their tiny plot of land felt like worlds away when we’d visit. Most everything we ate came from Papa’s garden. Granny was quick to mention if a crop was troublesome or how easy the growing season had been. Papa was quiet; never really spoke unless it was necessary. Their farm was the closest thing we had to country life growing up. Those few weeks every summer were something we looked forward to. Papa would show us how to care for the land if we wanted to learn, but mostly we got to roam the fields on our bikes, run along the canals and experience a complete freedom from our urban life.
Mama and Daddy didn’t spend much time on the farm; said the got plenty “that kind of life” as kids. When they’d take us to visit Papa and Granny, they’d stay for a meal then leave. I think they liked having us out of the house. My brother and sister fought all the time and it took everything in Mama not to lock them in a room together and see who’d come out alive.
Looking back now, I think having twins was hard on Mama. She was one of the last of her friends to have kids, but one of the first to get married. One baby was good and happy and the other was not. Daddy was working graveyard for the sheriff’s department and she had no family in the same time zone for help. When the twins were five Granny and Papa bought the farm in Denair. That first summer they were settled, Mama sent the twins to stay, first for a week, then after I was born, the entire summer.
The twins were seven when I arrived. One was still good and one was still not. Mama already felt overwhelmed with twins even seven years in. She said I was a good baby; quiet and happy, everything she needed in an accident. For years it was just Mama and me, the two of us alone to do whatever we wanted and no else to worry about. I was the only baby whose hair was easy for her to manage. My golden brown locks could sweep into ringletted pigtails in less than five minutes. My face looked like hers so no one doubted she was my mama. My nose was curved but didn’t bulb at the end as much as Mama’s. The twins had flat wide noses like daddy. My lips were a plumper version of hers, curved into a perfect adorable kiss when needed. Mama’s lips were thin, but the shape they made when she smiled was made for close-ups.
We’d go into San Francisco, to the library, the parks, the piers and museums. We’d watch and observe the world. She always said I was content to be confined as long as the promise of ice cream came with it. In Mama’s world, I was her baby and no one questioned it when were together. “Oh what a beautiful little girl, those eyes. Well, it’s like she’s a new interpretation of you,” the old ladies would say. Mama would smile and thank them. Mama’s eyes, deep chocolate in color were innocent. Her thick full lashes accentuated the almond shape. The twins’ eyes were like Daddy’s, green like his too. My eyes resembled Mama’s in shape and lashes, my color the perfect marriage of chartreuse and chocolate.
The summer I was five, Mama and I were in the park, sitting on a blanket. She was reading, I was playing with my dolls. One of Mama’s friends from high school moved to San Francisco and found Mama in the phone book. She had a daughter about my age and since she knew no one else in the Bay Area, Mama felt it her duty to reconnect, even if it was just for a play date.
We arrived early. Mama was feeling anxious and wanted to get out of the house before she lost her nerve. I don’t know how long we were there before Mama’s friend arrived.
“Bits?” Mama looked up from her book. A slender, petite woman with a porcelain skin child was walking toward us. The woman’s blond hair was almost blinding in the sunlight. The little girl next to her was an exact replica of her mother. “Oh Bits!” The woman embraced Mama. “Look at you! You look wonderful. Can you believe we haven’t seen each other in all these years? And now here we are!” The woman’s daughter tugged at her pant leg. Mama tried to speak but the woman started again.
“When I told Joe that Elizabeth and Tom lived in San Francisco he was thrilled. Made the decision to move a bit easier. I mean I know we’ve never met Tom, but we love you Bits, you’re my best friend from high school after all! And how great will it be that we can be a couple of friends whose kids can be friends?” Mama just stood there letting this woman speak. “I mean I cannot believe it has been over twenty years. Can you?” The little girl tugged at her mother’s leg again.
“Oh my, I was excited, where are my manners. Elizabeth, this is my daughter Charlotte. Charlotte, this is mommy’s dearest friend from high school, Elizabeth. Does anyone call you Bits?”
“No actually. It’s Elizabeth. Everyone calls me Elizabeth now.” Mama picked me up and rested me on her hip. “This is my daughter Eliza. Eliza this is my friend Mary Ann and her daughter Charlotte.” I was still holding my dolls.
Mary Ann stared at me, “Well she certainly has your face, doesn’t she? Good thing too.” She laughed nervously.
“Girls,” Mama said, “Why don’t you go play on the slide. See how close we are?” Mama sat me down. As Charlotte and I raced to the slide, I heard Mary Ann say, “She’s so dark, how is she so dark?”
The summer I was six was the first summer I got to spend on the farm. I remember being so excited the only words I received from my mother were, “Contain yourself, child.” The twins were teenagers and Daddy had reservations about me going, but Mama said it was time.
I loved being on the farm. Granny taught me all her recipes; none of which were written down. My favorite was macaroni and cheese. She taught me how to get stains out of everything. Sometimes she even let me use a knife to cut the vegetables from the garden.
I remember waking up early to help Papa feed the dogs. He’d teach me how to train them, giving commands and explaining what the dogs should do. On Sundays, we’d go to church and then after, listen to the baseball game on the radio. He’d always have the TV on mute. He explained baseball to me; taught me the rules of the game, explained the plays and calls that were confusing.
For ten years I spent my summers out there. After the twins went to college my entire summer at the farm turned into only a few weeks. When I was twenty, Granny and Papa sold the farm and moved back to West Virginia. At that point, that was the hardest day of my life. I was a sophomore at the University of Washington and over Thanksgiving, I flew home to help them pack. I cried the whole time. Not only was a chapter of my life coming to an end, but the ability to see my grandparents whenever I came home, the comfort in knowing they are there on the farm, standing on the porch waving at me as I pull into the gravel driveway, walking through the fields with Papa, pruning the rose bushes with Granny all of that was ending.
Now visits meant scheduling time and booking flights. Calling them meant remembering what time it was three thousand miles away. I worried their new home wouldn’t feel the same and if Papa would still be able to take his morning walks. Who was going to watch baseball with him? What team would he be loyal to if he can’t watch San Francisco play?
My parents seemed emotionless in the process. Daddy, the ever pragmatic, helped with the paperwork and negotiated with the real estate agent. Mama didn’t seem to care. Her only emotion was relief. Relief that she no longer had to consider these people. Relief that she could go back to life before they moved to California. The twins didn’t seem to care either. They were grown, one lived in New York, the other in Austin. I didn’t understand why they didn’t share my emotions. We were Granny and Papa’s only grandchildren. They loved us. They loved me. They made me feel like anything I wanted I could have. They expected hard work and they gave unconditional love. They never made me feel different or less than other kids.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, when my only aunt on my father’s side died, leaving Daddy as the last of his family. I realized my relationship with my dad’s family was different for my siblings. I looked nothing life my grandparents, but yet they loved me and claimed me as their granddaughter without hesitation.
Sometimes, I drive by the old farm, when I’m missing them. The house looks different, the color of red from my childhood was painted gray. The big trees and rose bushes have been torn out. The dog pens are gone. A gate was added at the driveway with a “keep out” sign posted on it. The plum tree is still there. Sometimes Daddy drives out there too. Sometimes he visits with neighbors. After Papa died, Daddy started planting veggies in his backyard; simple things, things that can grow in a Bay Area climate.
After college, I moved ten miles west of Papa’s farm. I frequent my town’s farmer’s market because I won’t grow anything of my own. One unusually cool July morning, I noticed my favorite fruit vendor had plums. Papa would let me pick the fruit off the trees when they were ready. He said it was the most important gleaning job on the farm. He was almost the height of a ladder and I remember he would lift me onto his shoulders to collect as many plums as I could. “The trick to knowing it’s ready,” He’d say, “is it’s just a little firm.” As I filled the bag with smooth, misshapen spheres he would walk the parameter of the branches. I’d fill a bag to the brim and he’d hand me another until all the plums I could reach were picked.
“Eliza?” The voice wasn’t familiar. I looked up to see a grown version of the 5-year old Charlotte. After that day in the park, my mother never attempted to see Mary Ann again. Sometimes we’d run into her, but Mama kept the exchanges brief.
“Charlotte?” I placed the plum back in the bin and stepped closer to the blonde.
“I thought it was you. Your face hasn’t changed.” I didn’t respond, didn’t know how to. My “face” was shaped like my mother, but a faint tone of my daddy. “Such a beautiful face,” people would say, confused how my parents could produce a child that didn’t resemble my twin siblings.
“My mama said no one back home knew about your daddy. Said people just assumed Elizabeth wasn’t that ‘open’.” Charlotte tried to explain. “They knew she was married, had kids, but your grandparents never said a thing.” I didn’t care what people “back home” thought of Mama. I didn’t care for what Charlotte or her mother had to say thirty years later.
“I guess what I’m trying to say to say is I’m sorry. I wish we could have been friends.”
“It’s ok, Charlotte, water under the bridge.” I looked at my watch, not really registering the time. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m actually supposed to be somewhere shortly.”
As I walked away, my mind was confused, confused by the day at the park, confused by my siblings’ indifference to our grandparents, confused by Charlotte’s apparent guilt. When I got home, I hopped on my bed and called Mama.
“Hi, sweet girl. How you doing?”
“I ran into Charlotte Johnson today.”
Category: Fiction, Short Story