Photo by Krys Alex on Unsplash
They both claimed her – the beautiful, chocolate eyed, caramel girl, exclusively or at least in primacy. The one – “I raised her”. The other – “she lives with me now.” In between them, I felt the friction – sandpaper and sparks. I measured the hours ahead and forced myself to inhale deeply, exhale slowly.
This is my guesthouse, my kitchen, and my home. I will work in my own pocket of peace amid simmering pots of savory meat and sheets of pasta rolled out across the tiled island.
I had agreed to this arrangement, when the girl emailed me from her village outside of Kabul. “I’d like to bring them both to your guesthouse. My mother from America and my other mother from here in Afghanistan. I want them to know each other. Bring the two most important people in my life together.”
I had been delighted. What could go wrong? Except the Afghan mother was toasted wheat and broken English, coriander, cumin, and turmeric. The American mother was white bread soaked in olive oil and rapid, New York City speech, garlic, and Parmesan. Embraced by each; the caramel and chocolate girl, born in India, raised in America, and living in Afghanistan. A girl who loved Italian lasagna and Afghan mantu equally, if differently. A girl who didn’t know that some spices don’t mix well.
“They’ll cook together, and then we’ll share the meal. It’ll be perfect.” She promised.
I chopped an onion fine for a balancing salad while Khadija ground flour into water with her bare hands and Francesca machine mixed ricotta and eggs. My guests, side by side at the kitchen island cast sidelong glances at the other.
we claim our own
I did not expect to be mediator between two fierce, dark eyed mothers, but the tension in my kitchen was unsustainable. I broke the sound of whirring machines, scraping bowls, and snapping knives with a brightly delivered observation. “It’s so wonderful to have you here. I know Sada wanted so much for you two to meet.”
Khadija, polite, thickly accented. “Yes. Sada is kind.”
Francisca, dismissive. “Just like going to one of her plays in school. Wonderful to see her, here.”
I winced and prayed Khadija would miss the insult.
From the cutting board next to the sink, I caught a glance of Sada herself, peeking through the swinging door that separated my kitchen from the dining room. She shot her fingertips over her lips and quickly disappeared.
I ground my teeth and willed myself to breathe.
Khadija set the bowl of dough on the counter beside me, winked both eyes and smiled. “I give her Dari. She no talk when she come.”
I smiled and sifted through possible responses, but Francesca defeated me with her own decisive retort. “I taught her English when she came to us.”
Khadija rolled her eyes, stepped over to the stove and lit the gas fire with a match from her own pocket.
Francesca rebuked her. “It lights on its own.” She stepped between Khadija and the stove’s control. Turned the knob off, then back on until the appliance clicked rhythmically. “Listen.” The flame leapt blue and Khadija’s eyes widened.
Shamed I thought, she muttered “Thank you.”
Francesca, all of 5’ 6” stood up straighter. “I taught Sada that, too.”
Khadija scraped an empty frying pan against the stove’s grill and turned her back toward the interfering woman.
I dropped four cucumbers into a colander in the sink, opened the tap as far as I could, and willed myself to breathe.
I did not grow up in a home where anyone seethed or sniped. Such passive-aggressive hostility was forbidden us. But their jealousy was reminiscent enough to sour my mouth and set my teeth on edge. I didn’t like it.
Khadija dropped the pound of ground beef into her skillet and mercilessly broke it into pieces. Francesca, pulled another skillet from the cabinet, placed it on the stove next to Khadija, and lit the fire beneath it.
in stories shared
I scraped the skin from the first cucumber with shocking speed. With the second, I forced myself to slow my hand, breathe, smile. Deep green peels gathered at the base of the sink and I thought of a new question for my visiting mothers.
Slow. I told myself. Slowly and lightly. I turned toward the stove just in time to see Francesca drop a dollop of olive oil into the base of her sauce pan and so I chose her first. “Francesca, would you tell us a story, about Sada, when she was young?”
Khadija stirred chopped garlic over her simmering meat with an attentive focus necessary for the job.
Francesca slid the can of garlic oil back into the cabinet, dropped her own block of ground beef into the pan, and smiled. “Sada came to us when she was six. She was so smart, but everything was hard. She spoke a little English, but not much. Still, she knew her numbers and loved to see how things work.”
Khadija sprinkled coriander over her meat and kept her eyes exclusively focused on her work.
we see our love
Francesca, also, sprinkled spices into her meat and spoke into her own sauce pan. “When Sada was seven, she found a bunny in the backyard.”
Khadija interrupted the woman beside her. “What is Buddy?
I turned to offer the explanation from my place at the sink, but Francesca beat me to it. “Rabbit. You know.”
The two women looked straight at each other for the first time and I caught my breath.
Khadija shook her head.
Francesca put her spatula down on the counter, extended her index fingers from both sides of her head, and shoved her lower lip under her teeth.
Khadija threw her head back and laughed. “Har gush! Har gush!” She laid her own spatula on top of the meat in her skillet and curled her fingers over her chest.
At that, Francesca shook her head up and down. She chuckled. The two women smiled at each other, the one repeating, “rabbit” and the other, “har gush”. Then suddenly, they seem to remember their animosity. Khadija pulled her skillet from the gas burner and Francesca stirred her meat. Their conversation failed to resume.
I peeled the last of my cucumbers and placed all three on the cutting board beside the sink. When I did, I caught Sada standing just outside the kitchens swinging door. Her hand was over her mouth, and her eyes were full of sorrow.
I sliced the first of my cucumbers and considered my options. Finally. “Francesca. What about the rabbit?”
Francesca set my largest glass baking dish on the tiled island in the middle of the kitchen. She pursed her lips, but continued with her story. “When Sada was seven, she brought home a bunny. A baby rabbit. She found him by himself in the yard. She put him in a shoebox and begged me to let her keep him. She fed him all day and even took him to school. That’s the kind of girl Sada was.”
Francesca finished her story and carefully poured sauce into the bottom of my baking dish.
I looked up at Khadija just in time to watch her clamp the pasta maker to the side of my island. Her lips were tight, but moving as though she was chewing the inside of her mouth. I offered her the same question. “Khadija. Can you tell us a story about Sada.”
Khadija stood up straight and I realized she was exactly the same height as Francesca. Two women. Two mothers. Each from different sides of the world. Both attached to the same girl.
Khadija offered her story in fragmented English. “Sada like children. Neighbor children like Sada. She always have crayons and picture. She put them on floor and children draw. They show her picture and she smile. She say, “Good. Good.” All children like her.”
Francesca carefully covered the sauce in the bottom of her pan with sheets of lasagna pasta. “That’s my Sada. We have cousins, lots of them. She plays games with them and makes them laugh. She’s kind and generous. Everyone loves her.”
The other mother echoed Francesca’s claim. “All love her. She kind. Good.”
The mothers fell into silence, and I returned to slicing my cucumbers. I thought about what to do next, but by the time I scraped the cucumbers into the salad bowl, the mothers were talking again.
First Francesca told the story about a science fair prize Sada won when she was thirteen. Khadija told a story about a sick child Khadija had made well. Francesca talked about how hard Sada worked in high school and how she graduated near the top of her class. Khadija told her Sada was teaching her English and she was very patient. Francesca told the story of Sada’s adopted grandmother and how Sada had helped take care of her when the woman was sick with cancer. Their stories went on and on.
Meanwhile, I rinsed and cubed tomatoes into the salad. When I finished, I wrapped the bowl in plastic, and slid it into the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. When I looked up, Francesca was helping Khadija pinch cooked meat into pockets of dough.
celebrate our joy
Sada, the caramel and chocolate girl they both loved stepped gently into the kitchen. She stood at the edge of the island and looked at both her mother’s. The two women smiled, blinked their eyes at one another, then leaned in to Sada, sandwiching her cheeks between their kisses.
I stood at the sink and felt a tear slide over my cheek. Sada glowed between the love of her two mother’s.
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