In its most natural state, my hair draws up into an Afro that crowns my head. This is also how my mother’s hair sits. It’s how it’s always been for her. So, when I see my Afro, I see my mother.
I don’t see her as she is now, though. I see her younger, maybe forty- something still slender in some places and voluptuous in others with her Afro perfectly picked out under a hairnet.
I see her in a leotard that forms a cup just under her breast and pinches at her forearms. She is never without a long sweeping skirt that kisses the tops of her feet. My mother has always been a modest woman. Her conversion to Islam solidified this modesty.
I could never unsee my mother because that would mean unseeing myself as well. Even as a child I was just like my mother. I was understandably removed from my father’s nonsense while simultaneously entrapped by it. My mother and I are lovers who love through service to others. Her goal was to make our home a sanctuary; heaven on Earth, if you will.
Ummi and mommy are what I call her.
My Ummi rose before the sun everyday. This was her way to stay connected to self and spirit. It was also the quietest time of the day for a mother of six and wife of a sociopath.
In the darkness of those morning hours, my mother prayed for two things: safety for her children and the peace promised to her when she converted to Islam.
When we rose, sometimes one at a time, other times all at once, we would always find her either sitting with the Holy Qu’ran in her lap or stationed in the kitchen. She was whole and bright in each of these places.
Watching my mother was an education in devotion. The biggest lesson being that the only man most important in a woman’s life is Allah. Allah was/is hands that created. Lives lived fully. Overcoming. Demystifying.
I had wondered about her sanity among the destructive behavior of my father, but on my mother’s side was a power beyond my father’s control. A power he handed to her unbeknownst to him. With this power, my mother created a world full of love and amazement. That love, for me — a rolly-polly child who loved sweets — came in the form of all the meals she concocted; lemon meringue pie being my all-time favorite.
In the kitchen, I would watch my mother’s arms — the color of baked butter — whip the egg whites that would form the meringue until they succumbed to her will. I wondered about all the mechanisms of her that worked in unison to create all the beautiful dishes she made into a performance. My eyes would snake up her arms taking in her layers of skin, her veins contracting and soaring beneath, the silent jiggle of her upper arms that flapped to and fro. Just beneath the short sleeve of her leotard was a contusion that peeked out interrupting her perfect skin that I wished were mine most days.
Flour. Sugar. Butter. Eggs. Lemons. These main ingredients merged to create a dish that, whenever I hear its name, I think of my mother. I think of the confidence in her eyes; the tilt of her head; the brush of her hand across her forehead leaving a smear of butter.
There is history behind that lemon meringue pie, as well. The story is a simple one, but it is folklore for us when my mother tells it.
The story goes that during summers in Morganza, Louisiana, a small village near the Mississippi River, my mother and her cousin Rochelle would travel down the road to visit Rochelle’s Godmother to get a lemon meringue pie for their Grandmother. These lemon meringue pies were the Holy Grail. A true compliment to a dinner of hush puppies and crawfish étouffée. This mission was a serious one. A child tasked with gathering sweets and getting them back home safely was commonplace; a test in responsibility. That pie was to make it to their grandmother in the same condition it was given to them: whole and untouched my hands or mouths. And each time that was the case.
Also during these summers, my mother made routine visits to the mobile library where she collected books on mermaids and mermen. On one particular visit, she came across a book of Langston Hughes’ poetry called Montage of a dream deferred. This bright yellow book resembled the golden flesh of the lemon meringue pie so much that my mother became instantly drawn to it. It is both the love of baking and books that my mother passed down to me personally.
Every corner of our house was filled with books, and everyday my mother wrapped an apron around her waist to prepare dishes that she injected with love.
Lemon meringue pie is only one of the many dishes that I resonate with my Ummi, but it is the one that has helped me see her as both mother and woman and child.