“Guess what you get to do today, kids?” Bending nearly in half, I held onto Baby Susie’*s tiny hands as she tried to walk.
With arms demonstrating what her sisters coined the Hallelujah Position, the wobbly baby legs began to advance. The diaper-clad infant focused on the table where her older siblings had just finished breakfast.
Deni and Jamie laughed as their baby sister lifted her left leg, performed an exaggerated body-tilt to the right, and then slammed the foot down on the wooden floor with a thump and a giggle. She repeated the maneuver until her swaying baby stomp brought her to Deni.
Susie yanked her hands out of mine, slapping the palms on the right thigh of her big sister. Deni backed away just enough to pull Susie onto her lap.
“Okay, kids,” I said as I took my seat at the table. “Mrs. Martha* called to ask me to bring you all to the hotel this morning.” The lump in my throat grew so fast I found it hard to push past it. I cleared my throat and reached for my water glass.
“Why?” Deni wrapped her arms around Susie in a show of protection. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Jamie tightening her fists around the arms of her youth chair.
The fear in their response unsettled me.
“Wait a minute, girls. I’ll be with you. Mrs. Martha told me that your mother would like to visit you. She’s not allowed to come here, so Mrs. Martha said you could visit your mom in the lobby of the hotel. That’s kind of like our living room. It’s a place with a sofa and chairs.”
“You gonna leave us there?” The beautiful green eyes of the young redhead glared, piercing my heart not just my eyes.
“Oh no. We will all come back here right after the visit.”
“You promise, Mama Da?”
I slipped over and lifted Jamie out of her youth chair. With a squeeze, I promised.
“Kids, your mother wants to see you. It’s been such a long time; she’s worried that you are being taken care of, you know? She doesn’t know that Susie is learning to walk. You can show her how to help Susie walk.” I struggled to smile and sound cheerful. Inside, my emotions fought to shield the children from more pain.
I set Jamie down as I said, “Let’s find your best outfit to wear for the visit, shall we?” I reached for Susie. “Deni, please help Jamie while I dress Susie.”
Half an hour later, gathered on the sofa in their Sunday best, I took hold of the small hands. “Let’s pray. God will help us with the visit. It’s important that your mother sees you.”
“I don’t want to see Mary*, I—“
Gently, I took my hand from Deni’s and pressed two fingers to her lips. “Sweetheart, you mustn’t call her Mary. She’s your mother and you girls need to call her Mother or Mama or Mommy.”
“But, you—“ I interrupted young Jamie.
“I’m your Mama Dar. Mary is your mother who gave you life from the beginning. I’m so sorry that she’s had a hard time knowing how to take care of you, but. It’s important for the visit that you don’t call her Mary.” I looked into each pair of eyes. “Please, will you do that for me?”
The narrow shoulders shrugged, but each child nodded her agreement. “Okay, thank you! Now, let’s pray and show your Mommy how Susie’s learning to walk.”
Entering the hotel proved as stressful for me as for the children. What do I say to the woman who’s children had been taken away and given to me, even temporarily? Martha said I must supervise the visit; but where should I sit, or should I stand?
Once the heavy door had closed on the straggling Deni, I ushered the little troop into the lobby. Mary stayed seated.
“Hello, Mary! The girls have brought their coloring books to show you. Jamie is doing well sometimes even staying inside the lines.” I felt like a nervous chipmunk, chattering full-speed ahead, without taking a breath. “Susie’s trying to hold a spoon but not really enjoying it. She’d much rather just use her fingers, even for oatmeal,” I giggled and then choked.
I held the infant out, but Mary didn’t reach for her. I sat Susie on the floor near my feet, hoping she’d topple over and crawl to Mary. She didn’t move.
“Girls? Show your mommy your coloring books.”
I pushed Jamie slightly in Mary’s direction. “Deni, Jamie’ll need help finding the pages she wanted to show Mommy. Can you help her, please? It looks like there’s plenty of room on the floor next to your mother.”
I felt such relief as the youngsters dropped on each side of their mother’s legs and began opening the books. I breathed a huge sigh when they started laughing and sharing about their days with the babysitting kids.
“Baby’s learning to walk, Mar—Mama,” said Deni. “I’ll show you.”
I moved away to let Deni help Susie to her feet. “You just hold onto her hands like this,” the pre-schooler demonstrated.
Mary approached the baby, reaching to take hold of the standing child. Deni had no sooner placed the teensy fist into Mary’s than Susie plopped down. The grimace on Susie’s face signaled the vocal objection would soon follow. Mary let go of her baby’s hand and stared at me.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, and I meant it. My heart went out to the mother, whose life had not been an easy one. Then, she snarled at me. Fear took root in my heart as the angry woman turned back to the sofa.
I returned to my place on the bottom steps leading upstairs. I bit my lip so as not to cry from the tension. While a State requirement that had merit, this visit-thing brought pain to everyone involved. The hour challenged all of us.
Back in the car, the girls chattered about all that they wanted to do for the rest of the day. I couldn’t tell if the rapid-fire dialogue had to do with nervousness, or if I’d projected my own feelings onto the children. To them, the visit had happened; let’s get on with the day. To me, I needed some regrouping time. I knew exactly what to do to meet all of our needs.
“Hey, girls, let’s go see what Stacie, Shannon, and Baby Chip are doing, shall we?” Delighting over their clapping and cheering, I pictured Carroll’s sun tea pouring out of a gallon jar and into a tall glass of ice. The condensation wet the glass even as the delicious brown liquid forced its way around and through the clanking cubes.