I will never forget the day I met Beatrice “MaBea” Mitchell.
It was ten years ago that I walked with Ken into his mother’s house for the first time. We had been dating for over a year. I was only in my early twenties but I had never seen so many ebony skinned people in one room, and in the center sat an older woman whose skin was lighter than mine. She was so light she almost looked white. Her hair fell in beautiful, silver, thick waves with strands that curled at the ends.
“Hey Mom!” Ken says to the woman. “This is Sa’Diyyah.” The woman never looked my way.
“Hello,” I said, a little sarcastically. Still the old woman didn’t pay me any attention.
Not one piece of furniture in the living room matched. The dark paneling and drapes made the room feel heavy. Little children were running in and out of the front door, which seem to be common on the streets of South Philly.
Ken said to me, “I’ll be back,” and ran up the stairs that were painted brown. I turned and saw four teenagers sitting on the sofa probably ranging in age from thirteen to sixteen. They made no room for me to sit down so I stood in the middle of the room under MaBea’s inspection.
She said, “My son is a man. Don’t know why he with you wearing that little hoe skirt.”
I slowly turned to look at her because she could not be talking to me! How dare this ignorant old woman with her dingy house, I thought with a frown on my face as if something stank. The teenagers burst out laughing.
Ken came jogging down the stairs and asked, “What’s so funny?”
I responded loud enough for the entire room to hear, “I don’t know, but please let your mother know I fight old people,” and with that, I walked out the door.
Shaking myself from that uncomfortable memory from a decade ago. I stood on the outside of our townhouse with my hand still on the doorknob. Looking around the complex I thought how we had really thrown ourselves into country living since we had moved to South Carolina. I wished I had a good excuse to stay home that day. Being with Kenny’s family took so much energy to try and ignore all of the slick commentary coming from everybody all the time, and I mean all at the same time. But I didn’t have an excuse and telling Kenny why I didn’t want to go would only put a strain on our relationship. I approached our silver Hyundai Elantra as if I was voluntarily handing myself over to be driven to the enemy’s camp. I took a deep breath and slid into the passenger seat.
Sitting in the front seat, I looked over at Ken. He was in his glory heading to his mama’s house. Prince’s song “Adore,” was playing on the radio and he was singing along, and he was really into it. With his arms outstretched, and his face contorted as if he was on a stage really singing to an audience of thousands, he looked at me and really started performing just for me,
“Ohhhh, baby, ohhh. Until the end of time, I’ll be there for you. You own my heart and mind, I truly adore you.”
Even though I was bothered about this visit, I smiled at Ken. He could really sing with his chocolate fine self. He hit every note that Prince sang. I blushed because this guy was my singing six foot four inches of espresso.
I stopped looking at him and turned to look out the window at the familiar stores we pass every time we drive down Big Road. Ridgeland only has three traffic lights in the entire town. There are two grocery markets, the Piggley-Wiggley and the Food Lion that we just passed. But what Ridgeland wasn’t in lack of was wooded areas. That quick we were turning onto Bees Creek Road headed north. It is the most beautiful two lane road covered on both sides by woods filled with huge oaks and weeping willow trees whose branches met in spots and created a canopy across the road. It reminded me of stories I had read in romantic novels. Occasionally, a house would appear on a patch of cleared land. Ken gently reached over with his right hand and grabbed my chin to turn my head towards him.
He asked softly, “Are you okay?” noticing I had been quiet since I got in the car. This is my time to fake it. I literally complained every time he wanted us to go to these family Sunday dinners at his mother’s house. I tell myself, don’t say anything. But shoot, I wanted to eat my own Sunday dinner instead of heating it up on Monday, I thought to myself. Girl, let him be happy in this moment. But like word vomit my words just spilled out.
“No, I’m not okay. I don’t want to go to your mother’s.”
“Why?” he asked as he continued to drive.
“Why?! Ken, your mother is rude,” I responded.
“Yes she is. Just ignore her.” He laughed.
“Ken, it’s hard to ignore her when she is verbally taking shots at me. We’ve been married for three of the ten years we’ve been together, and she still doesn’t like me. You don’t get it because you’re her good son that I took away,” I sulked with my arms folded.
I shook my head because he really doesn’t get it. The entire family treated him like a god. Well, why shouldn’t they when he paid for everything for everybody? When we got married that stopped. He just couldn’t afford to take care of our home and his mother’s home at the same time. Being a blended family was hard enough without all the outside energy and everyone asking for help with their bills.
As we pulled onto the property of Orr Hill, where all of Ken’s family on his mother’s side resided, I began to look for our children amongst their cousins as we pulled up in MaBea’s front yard. Our youngest two daughters ran up to the car.
Lesley was rubbing her belly saying, “Grandma is cooking my favorite meal.”
I thought to myself, Lima beans. Now I know why Kia was frowning. She hated Lima beans.
I told Kia, “You’ll get through it.”
She rubbed her hands together and responded, “I know! Grandma is frying chicken too!”
I chuckled as I looked at my girls. Ebony and Ivory, night and day yet very much the same. Lesley, who was my ebony goddess, tall and slender and eyes that you could just swim in, was Ken’s daughter from his first marriage and she was eleven. And Kia with her gorgeous self looking like she was always wearing eyeliner with super long lashes was my daughter from a previous relationship and she was twelve years old. How could these girls be born beautiful and that beauty intensify with each year they lived? We have been raising the girls together for the last six years. These girls are my world. Giggling, the girls pulled us towards the house.
We walked in the door, and just like MaBea’s previous house in Philly this double wide, extra long trailer is filled with people. The trophies covered every shelf of the book case. They were dusted and shined bright. All but two of them had Ken’s name on them. Pictures of every child, their spouses, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of this family filled the walls, and there were pictures even under a glass-covered wooden coffee table. Mismatched pieces of furniture somehow made its way down Interstate 95 with MaBea when she moved here. I excused my way through the crowd of in-laws in the living room and walked into the kitchen. I found a space in the corner of the kitchen with my back against the wall which was near a small window with yellow and white curtains. The table was covered with a yellow, plastic tablecloth the kind you find in Dollar General with a small artificial potted plant in the center. There is no artwork on the walls, and the linoleum on the floor had gray duct tape holding it down at the doorway entrance. There were two refrigerators and a deep freezer which occupied one wall. MaBea literally had a pot cooking on every burner of the stove. There was nothing brand new in this house but it was exceptionally clean. I looked up to see her watching me as she cut up some sharp cheese into small cubes. One of her grandchildren and a great grandchild came in asking for something to drink.
“NuNu and Malik, if y’all don’t get the hell out of my kitchen until I’m done,” she yelled as she held the knife she was using to point towards the opening that led to the living room where so much noise of mixed conversations and kids playing could be heard. NuNu and Malik laughed at her outburst as they left, but no one else dared enter the kitchen. I watched MaBea as she watched me. Finally she broke the silence.
“What brings you in here?” she said.
MaBea moved across the kitchen. She stopped at the counter next to the stove and dropped some chicken in a brown paper bag filled with flour and began to shake it to coat the chicken pieces with flour. Then she opened the bag and pulled out one piece at a time and laid each piece into some hot cooking oil inside of a black iron skillet that was sitting on the stove.
“I don’t want to sit in there with a bunch of noisy kids so I chose the lesser irritation,” I replied with my head tilted defiantly as I looked directly into her eyes with no emotion on my face.
MaBea never lifted her head but her eyes landed on me as she sarcastically chuckled. She washed her hands at the sink before returning to work with the cheese. Her hands moved fast to mix cubes of cheese with macaroni, milk, egg and butter within a large, deep aluminum pan. I watched her as she slid the pan into the preheated oven and closed the door. She then turned the chicken in the iron skillet with a long two-prong fork seen in every kitchen of my lifetime. She commenced mixing up the ingredients to make cornbread. Beatrice “MaBea” Mitchell was like a well organized machine moving from the pots on the stove, to mixing up items on the counter, to watching me. The kitchen was filled with so many wonderful aromas of chicken frying, macaroni and cheese backing, and rice cooking the old fashioned way, no rice steamer or rice in a bag to boil. MaBea watched her rice, which would come out perfect every time. I must have been really hungry because even the Lima beans smelled unusually good.
Out of the blue MaBea asked me, “Why don’t you like Lima beans?”
“Who told you I don’t?” I asked.
“Kenny did when he asked me to make something to go with the fried chicken so you could have something to eat,” she replied.
So she and Kenny had a conversation about me, I thought to myself. I knew Kenny was just looking out for me but speaking to his mother about me and not telling me made me uncomfortable.
“Well…” MaBea scowled at me, irritated that she had been kept waiting.
“Well, what?” I answered coolly.
“Why don’t you like Lima beans?” she asked again, enunciating each word.
“Because they’re nasty,” I replied, looking at her like she had just asked the
dumbest question ever.
Without looking up or missing a beat she said, “Maybe your mother couldn’t cook.”
I thought to myself, So lady, it’s enough you insult me now you’re coming for my mother.
“She cooks just fine,” I replied through tight lips.
But MaBea would not let up. “I’m not trying to be mean right now, it’s a possibility that your mother didn’t know how to cook Lima beans and that might be why you don’t like them.”
I let that statement swim around in my head for a couple of minutes. MaBea kept cooking, checking all of the pots for the progress of the food, giving me time to think about it.
“It’s possible,” I finally said. “It’s the only reference I have.”
“You should try a little of my gravy from the Lima beans on some rice and then decide,” she said.
I looked over at her and said, “I guess.” But I was thinking, what is this chic up to? Kenny’s mom was always being slick with her mouth and I truly believed that she did not like me so why would she all of a sudden want to feed me?
MaBea took that as a signal to help me decide. She grabbed a bowl and put a large spoonful of rice in it. She then put a little butter on the rice and ladled some gravy from the Lima beans on top of it.
Watching her, I said loudly, “Not a lot!”
Without acknowledging what I said MaBea grabbed a fried chicken wing, which she knew was my favorite. Does she think I will say I like it because I like the chicken wing? Well, she has another thing coming, I thought to myself. She selected a spoon from the counter drawer and a napkin and walked towards me. I swallowed hard as she approached. MaBea placed the bowl on the table in front of me along with the chicken wing on a saucer and some hot sauce. She handed me a napkin and a spoon. I don’t know when but at some point she had learned that I like to eat with a spoon. Funny how I felt like I was deciding more than just whether my mother could cook or not, and more than whether I liked Lima beans or not. I took the spoon from her and dipped it into the rice and Lima bean gravy. I brought the spoon filled with rice, gravy and a savory smell to my mouth and I ate it. The flavor of seasonings danced on my tongue. I closed my eyes to savor the experience. I opened my eyes and looked at MaBea, who had a small smile curled at the corners of her mouth. Without a word I dug back into that bowl and finished eating every drop. Before I could say anything the smaller children started to file into the kitchen with Kenny.
Ken smiled and said to his mother, “That food ain’t done yet woman?”
“Get your wife out of my kitchen and I’ll make you a plate.” MaBea scowled as she returned to the mean person I am used to her being.
I rolled my eyes at her. I knew she could not pretend for long to like me. I put on one of her aprons and helped to make the kids plates and then begin putting the food in storage bowls. Placing them on the counter to cool, I started washing the pots to give MaBea less to talk about when I was gone. When dinner was over and the kitchen was clean I made it clear to Ken that I was ready to go. Clearly that little moment of MaBea being kind was over after I tasted her amazing Lima beans.. The girls were talking over one another, trying to convince us to let them stay the night so they could walk to school with their cousins the next day, since their school was on the same road where MaBea lived.
Ken whispered to me, “Let them.” and I quickly agreed because I wanted to just leave. Just then MaBea called my name from the kitchen. I sighed in exasperation before walking back into the kitchen to see what she could possibly want.
“Yes?” I said, as politely as I could muster in that moment.
MaBea picked up a bag and handed it to me. I looked inside and it was filled with food. All of those wonderful smells were now inside of this bag.
She said, “You seemed to enjoy the Lima beans and chicken so much that I wanted to pack you up some to take home. I also made you some cornbread to eat with it.”
I turned to look her in her face and the harsh lines that were usually there had softened. She nervously fingers a white handkerchief with tiny pink roses on it that she was holding in her hands. I immediately realized that she was letting me in.
I awkwardly said, “Thank you MaB… Mom.”
She quickly hugged me and told me to get out of her kitchen. I smiled as I grabbed the bag, walked through the living room and out the front door.
About the Author
Martina Mitchell is a senior at Eastern University. She has been writing since the age of seven. A lover of books and time to write is her favorite way to spend her free time. Martina is married, the mother of three beautiful daughters, she has eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.