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MOTHER'S STRANGE LOVE
by Carol W. Berman
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All winter, I wanted to go back to the zoo. Mom said we couldn't because it was too cold and I might get sick again. I wanted to see that monkey daddy with his baby riding his back. The year before when I was eight, I'd fallen in love with his leathery, kind face; it made me wish for my own daddy. Mom always said I shouldn't ask about daddy; "He was a bad man," she'd say.
Spring was finally here and the bare trees in front of the zoo were filled with pink cherry blossoms. I ran ahead of mom and Jim, her new boyfriend, to dance under the trees. I felt pretty and happy in my white cotton dress and red, shiny sandals. My long black hair was brushed into a ponytail down my back. I stretched out my arms, threw back my head and breathed in the sweet perfume as I twirled around, hard as I could. Mom caught me on the third twirl.
"Stop it, Lilly! You'll fall," she scolded, sounding so angry. She pressed my arms to my sides and smoothed down my ponytail.
"I want to get dizzy, mom! It's fun," I tried to explain, but she wasn't listening. She was looking at Jim. He was so tall that she, who's tall too, seemed short next to him. His wavy blonde hair was combed neatly away from his high, pale forehead.
Jim reminded me of my teacher, Mr. Adams, who we all loved.
Mom looked so skinny and ugly that day. She was dressed in a short blue dress and the big white sneakers she always wore in the emergency room where she worked as a nurse. Her dark brown hair was clipped up on her head with loose ends falling on her neck. She and Jim had met in the emergency room where he worked, too, as a doctor. There were other days I had seen her in outfits that made men comment on her good looks.
"Let's go into the zoo," mom said. She took my hand and led the way. Jim smiled at me as he followed. He had one of the best smiles in the world. I pretended that we were a family who went to the zoo every Sunday. At the gate Jim took out his wallet to pay.
"You don't have to," mom protested. She glanced at me with annoyance. She often looked at me like this, as if she wished she'd left me home. I cringed and wanted to disappear.
"It's my pleasure," Jim said.
I felt so good when he said that.
Jim handed the entrance man the money and took three tickets.
I skipped ahead of mom and Jim to the monkey's cage. A mother monkey, who balanced a baby between her legs, was slowly picking at his fur. The mother looked sad and tired, but the baby, on all fours, had his tail up in the air. He looked happy chewing on a piece of orange. I didn't think he was the same baby that I'd seen last year, but maybe he was, because when he saw me he dashed over to the bars. He showed his pointed teeth and I bared my teeth too and laughed.
"He seems to like you," Jim said, coming up behind me. "Here are some peanuts to feed him."
I stuck out my palm, holding two peanuts next to the bars. The baby monkey reached out and snatched one. I liked feeling his furry paw. I wondered where the daddy was. Did the baby monkey feel lonely like me without a daddy?
Mom pulled my arm back before the monkey could get the second nut. "What are you doing? Don't you know that monkeys have fevers? Do you want to wind up in the hospital again?"
"I'm sorry, Wilma. I'm the one who gave Lilly the nuts. You're right," Jim said. He stooped over and seemed so much shorter suddenly. I wished he could stand up to mom instead of just agreeing with her.
"Well, I want Lilly to learn to be careful." She sounded very important and bossy, the way she did when she ordered people around. I could tell that mom felt proud of herself when she talked like that, but I didn't know why. People would get the wrong impression of her and think that she was mean, but I knew how kind she could be. Whenever we went food shopping she'd let me push the cart around and she'd always buy me little boxes of raisins or cookies to munch.
Jim was so nice. He never sounded bossy. I ate the other nut myself and I trailed behind them. I hoped that maybe he and mom would get married and I could be a flower girl like my friend Kathy at her mom's wedding. Jim said doctors and nurses went together like popcorn and butter.
Mom ambled over to the bird cages while Jim and I headed towards the giraffes.
"Do you think I could ride one of those?" I asked.
Jim laughed. "I don't think they'll stand still long enough for you to get up on them. Did you ever ride a pony or a horse?"
"We were on a ranch once, but mom kept me indoors most of the time. I think she rode a horse."
Mom came back and grabbed my arm. "I told you not to pester Jim."
My face burned red and I wanted to disappear again.
"No, Wilma. We were having fun," Jim said. He gave me a wink and I felt better.
© 2002 Carol W. Berman