30 Aug “Birth Mother” by Amanda Lieser
“Birth Mother” by Amanda Lieser[su_divider]
I stand in a perfectly pristine kitchen. The counter tops are covered in flour. She stands at them, waiting for me. She’s rolling out the cookie dough in deep, even strokes, like the ocean kissing the beach. Her soft humming fills the kitchen with love. Her hands lift me up; I’m in a navy blue sundress with little yellow sunflowers on it. “Here, sweetie,” she hands me an apron and I lift my little arms obediently to her. She ties it around my waist. A little teddy bear clutching a rolling pin in one soft, brown paw is splashed across my tummy. And beside me, she rolls. I watch the muscles in his taunt arms ripple with the pressure. The sunlight makes the sugar glisten and sparkle like glitter. The room smells sweetly of the confections we are working so diligently to create. She smiles at me and gestures at the cookie cutters.
There’s some part of me that knows that these cookie cutters are Mama’s. Why does she have Mama’s special cookie cutters I wonder. They are a deep copper color and Mama got them from her mama who got them from her mama. For 11 and a half months out of the year, they’re stored in worn gallon sized baggies with zipper seals. The bags feel rough on my little fingers, but Mama says they don’t need to be replaced yet. When they cascade out of the bags, they play a chorus of music that sounds like their own Christmas carol as they crash onto the wooden table. Maggie’s fingers and mine grasp and reach for our favorite shapes. Mama tells us that we need to cut out the big shapes on the gingerbread dough first, as she nibbles a morsel. So Maggie and I press the big giant angel; her wings are the span of my palm. “Press down firmly,” she instructs, placing her soft palm onto ours. It hurts for a moment, but when we release we can see the shape of the angel. Delicately, Mama scoops the angel onto the cookie pan. Maggie is in her corner, pressing the cut out of holiday bells into one corner. When we’ve done all our little hearts can, Mama balls up the dough and rolls it out again. Maggie and I nibble on the cookie dough giggling while singing, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” So why does the woman have Mama’s cutters?
When she looks at me, I notice she’s Asian. Like me. I trace my almond shaped eyes and examine hers. I trace the slope of my button nose while memorizing the slope of hers. She smiles and her eyes crinkle just like mine. “How can you possibly see when you smile like that,” the white school photographer asked me so I stopped smiling in the photos. But she doesn’t ask me. She knows. Her long fingers indicate Mama’s cookie cutters, but I don’t feel right using them without her. I shake my head, so the woman grabs a cutter. She cuts out the shape of the bells. “Mama says you need to cut the big shapes first,” I protest and reach for the big angel. But she disappears. I search the counters wildly. Then, I reach for the biggest gingerbread man instead, who is as tall as the angel. I grasp him tightly and press him into the dough.
The woman nods encouragingly. She presses her hand into mine and since she is standing so close I can smell her perfume. The scent of almonds fills my nose. It’s sweet and light. And I want more of it. Her hand is cold against mine. Mama’s is never cold. “Where’s Maggie,” I ask. Mama says we can’t make cookies without my little sister by my side. It’s the rules. The woman doesn’t answer, just shakes her head. Her long, black hair cascades around her shoulders. The woman reaches up and ties it with a long, single, thick, red ribbon. I notice she’s wearing earrings. Little pearls. Like the kind I asked for when Mama let me pierce my ears.
I hear the sound of a timer going off. The woman begins pressing shapes into the dough with expert speed. She chooses the bells, a small angel, two little men, and one snowman. I just stand back and watch. The dough dries on my palms and I dust them off. She has filled a tray. The woman grips the silver nonstick sheet tightly and opens the oven. When she turns I see she’s in a cashmere, cream colored sweater. The kind I have only ever seen Granny wear, not one Mama would wear. Mama wears bright red sweatshirts with Snoopy from Peanuts decorating his little red house for Christmas on them. I also notice the tan pants and little ballet flats on the woman’s feet. They have a big gold belt buckle. Those aren’t Mama’s shoes, either. She wears bright red Converse All Stars with her bright red sweaters. When the woman opens the oven door, the heat engulfs me.
I’m a little uncomfortable and I fumble with the straps of my little dress. The woman returns to the counter and scoops up the dough. She balls it tightly and flours the counter. I watch her roll out the dough and begin the process again.
The timer sings loudly. The woman has filled the next cookie sheet. She walks to the oven, releases the cookies, and sets them on top of the stove. With expert precision she spins on her heel and pops the tray of dough in. I want to ask her why she left me, why she let me be adopted. But the words don’t come. Instead, she begins arranging the cookies on a silver cooling rack on the counter by the tan stove. Mama never uses cooling racks. She just lets the cookies cool on the trays. Once the cookies are arranged the woman returns to me. The once monstrous ball of dough is now very small. She tears a chunk of it off and drops it in the palm of my hand. She smiles and tears some for herself. I notice her impeccable white teeth. The way her eyes crinkle makes mine crinkle. The dough is sweet and just a little bit spicy. It melts in my mouth.
The woman places the first cookie sheet in the perfectly white sink. It has no other dishes. Mama’s sink always has other dishes. Maggie’s colorful sippy cups and plastic plates that are all sectioned off so her broccoli doesn’t touch her Mac and Cheese which doesn’t touch her fish sticks. The woman places the second tray of cookies on the stove as she did with the first and begins arranging the cookies onto another cooling rack. I stand on my little step stool and reach for the dessert plates. They’re decorated with llamas wearing holiday lights and Santa hats. There are little leaves of holly along the edges. The woman takes the plates from my hands and loads them with some of the cookies from the first batch, all cooled and ready to be devoured. She also pours a couple glasses of milk. That’s just like Mama. “A little protein with your treat, my loves,” she’d say to Maggie and me. The woman and I sit at Mama’s kitchen table. The cookies are crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. I bite the head off the big angel which makes the woman laugh. I want to hear more so I tear into her left wing, then her right. The woman is laughing loudly. I wonder if Mama can hear and I wonder where Mama is. I feel tears pricking the back of my little black eyes. My eyes look just like that woman’s. She offers me a hug. But I don’t want her. I want Mama.
I awake to the sound of eggs being fried. The morning sun cuts through a thin pink curtain. Maggie can sleep through it, though. “She’s always been a heavy sleeper,” says Mama when I tell her she doesn’t want breakfast. Mama marches up to me. She lifts my chin so I can gaze into her soft blue eyes. Eyes, not like mine. “Are you ok, sweetheart, you look like you’ve had a rough night,” she says. Her voice is soft. It sounds like home. My eyes nervously dart to the tallest cabinet in the kitchen. To the home of the cookie cutters. I don’t have to answer as Maggie stumbles in. My sister devours her eggs and pancakes that Mama has cut into achievable bites for her. “Now remember, today we’re going to the eye doctor after school,” Mama says. She always reminds us of our schedule during breakfast. Mama glances at the kitchen clock; the one with the big cat eyes that dart back and forth as time passes. She claps her hands and begins clearing the table. I gulp down my glass of milk and race Maggie to our shared bathroom to brush our teeth. My mind is drifting to the woman.
Mama is waiting by the door, clutching our backpacks. Maggie’s is blue. Mine is pink. We rush into the car. I am still haunted by the woman in the dream. By her smile most especially. Mama picks Maggie and me up in the pickup lane at school. We pile into her white civic and she asks us the best part of our day. Maggie says the cafeteria served Mac and Cheese. I say I am sick of Mac and Cheese. We drive to a big, red brick building with lots of windows. Mama drives up and down the lanes of cars for a while. Maggie is singing some song she learned about the four seasons and swinging her feet. Mama tells her to stop kicking the seat. Maggie doesn’t stop. We finally park and Mama takes our hands. My left hand slips into her right. Mama’s hands are warm and soft. I like them more than the woman from my dream’s hands. We walk into the air conditioned building. Our feet sound loud and squeaky on the tile floor. There is a large water fountain which Maggie rushes up to. Her little fingers reach for the water. “We’ll come back when we’re done,” Mama promises. She ushers us into the office with the blue eye on the glass door. I take in the large room full of glasses. Mama marches up to the counter and brushes her gray hair from her face. She talks with the lady with the red lipstick and redder hair who tells us to stand against the white wall for a picture. I don’t smile.
Mama sits in the middle of Maggie and me. I can feel my palms getting sweaty and reach for Mama’s hand. She strokes mine gently so I open up my palm. I press my fingers into hers and giggle because the top of my nails only reach ⅔ up her finger. “You’re growing so big,” she whispers. A woman in blue scrubs calls out Maggie and my names. We jump up and follow her into another big white room. “I’m going first because I am the oldest,” I proclaim. Maggie does not protest. She has us sit in a chair and look at an image of a red hot air balloon soaring through green fields. The woman smiles a lot and while Maggie stares at the balloon, I read her name badge says Becky. Becky tells Mama some things and we follow her out of the room down a long white hallway with wooden doors on either side of us. She flicks a few colorful plastic flags posted above the door before letting us in.
I take a seat in the big, black, leather chair. I sink back in it. The room is cold and smells too clean. Mama and Maggie sit in green cloth covered chairs. The same one from the waiting room. I notice a mirror. Becky comes back in. She takes a seat on the stool across from me. I am handed a little wooden spoon which I use to cover my left eye and the lights click off. Becky shows me a chart of letters. She instructs me to read the last line I can. I am desperate to pass the test. I mumble out: M, P, Q, Z? The last letter is certainly questionable. Becky just smiles and has me switch the spoon to my other eye. I repeat the test. But now I’m not so sure on the Q, too.
Becky just smiles again and tells me this machine will help me do better. I lean forward against the black alien contraption with hundreds of little lenses. Becky is right. She has me select from two different options, but with each click the letters become clearer. I hear her say to my mother that I will need glasses. She tells me that it’s time to “dilate my eyes.” My heart begins to race as Mama stands and holds my hand. Becky tells me to hold open my eyes and look directly up. The first drop hits like acid. I scream. Maggie screams and jumps up. I can see her rushing to me. Becky says, “We have to do three more.” I demand to know why to which she replies, “It’s because you have such dark eyes, sweetie.”
I don’t want to be her sweetie. Each drop feels like salt and chlorine from the pool is rushing in and burning my eyes. Maggie is thoroughly freaked out and Mama is trying to convince her to be brave. I dab at my eyes with the provided tissues. I feel better. Maggie takes her seat and completes the same ritual I did with Becky. When I spin to look at the mirror beside me I realize I can see the letters clearly. The Q was an O and the Z was a T. I feel like a fool. Becky has Maggie and I switch seats because the doctor will be in soon.
Once Becky is gone, Mama tells Maggie and me that we were so brave. Maggie’s eyes are red and her pupils are huge. We stand and giggle at each other while Mama watches. There comes a little knock on the door and the giggles subside. I diligently take my seat. The woman who walks in is the woman from my dreams. I have to stumble to pick my jaw up from the floor. She sits on Becky’s stool. She wheels over and intrudes herself as Doctor Yang. I mumble out my name and she smiles that same crinkly eyed smile from my dream. She leans forward and tells me to do the same. A bright light hits my eyes. She tells me to look at her earring. It’s a little pearl. With her this close I can smell the almonds again. I concentrate on her earring as she concentrates on my eye.The woman’s long fingers brush a lock of my hair from my eye. As instructed I look up, down, left, and right with my left eye. Then, I repeat the process with my left. Maggie takes her turn. I wonder if she feels as connected to Dr. Yang as I do. Probably not because Mama says Maggie and I have different birth mothers. Dr. Yang is not her birth mother. She is mine. Mama talks with Dr. Yang for a while and we walk back to the waiting room. “I’ll see you soon,” says Dr. Yang. I nod and smile as I do my best to memorize her soothing voice.
Mama takes us to a man with curly brown hair and square glasses. He sits at a glass table and welcomes us as we approach. Mama hands him two pieces of paper and instructs Maggie and me to “take a look around!” Maggie and I gaze at the colorful frames like kids in a candy shop. We try on red ones, black ones, blue ones, and purple ones. Some frames are square, others are round, and a few are oval. Our noses crinkle at the clear plastic part of a handful of frames that pinch slightly. Some grams don’t have that feature. Maggie settles on a blue square frame and I choose a pink rounded square frame. Out of the corner of my eye I see Dr. Yang. I wonder if I ran to her now if she could answer my questions. Since it’s no longer a dream. But she walks briskly to one of the doors and shuts it behind herself. Maggie and I stare at ourselves and each other in the mirror. Our pupils look like they came off our stuffed animals. Our little eyes are now so big. Mama hands over her credit card and we bounce away with the promise to return soon to pick up our glasses.
Outside the office, the indoor water feature rushes around. As we step closer, I inhale the pungent scent of chlorine and cringe. But Maggie is ever fearless. She boldly skips over to the big, square bowl and takes a seat on the tiled edge. Her little feet dangle and graze the tile floor as her fingers reach for the water. “It’s cold,” she says as Mama digs in her worn, red wallet and hands her a penny. She gives me one, too. It’s cold in my hand and I know if I bring it to my lips for a kiss for good luck, it’ll smell metallicy. The water rushes louder beside me. I want to burst back into the office and throw my arms around Dr. Yang. I need to apologize for not trusting her last night. But will she take me away from Mama? “Make a wish and toss the penny in the fountain,” says Mama. I squeeze my eyes shut and wish to stay with mama.