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Mama hands me my last three dresses, packs my Sunday hat and stockins, and kisses my forehead. "You're a woman now, Elsa, and he'll take good care of you," she says. It's high time you build your own family." Papa kisses my cheek and closes the door of Nick's pick-up as I wave goodbye to my five brothers and sisters. With fifteen years of southern life as my platform, I plunge into the waters of reality by the skin of my teeth. Immediately I am a wife, forced to begin a family of my own…just like Mama.
Every day Nick comes bouncin' through the front door ready for supper. "Wipe your feet," I always say, "and don't slam my door." With younguns' screamin' and fightin' I always manage to put a hot meal on the table, despite the fact that I'm six months pregnant. You see, Nick owns a seafood house. "Nick's Quality Seafood", that's what he calls it. He leaves at five thirty in the mornin' and comes home every day at six in the evenin'. Oysters are his specialty, and that's what's kept us alive. With him supportin' me and four kids at twenty years old, I figure this is the least I could do. Fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and corn bread are his favorites. I'm still workin' on them butter biscuits Mama taught me how to make, but the rest of my cookin' is pretty good. Supper time is the only time we ever really talk, so I look forward to six o'clock.
Barbara Jean Carroll is her name. She weighs six pounds eleven ounces with a head full of hair, just like her daddy. We decided six was our lucky number and it was time for our family to stop growin'. Thank heavens! I see the doctor comin' down the hall with a heap of nurses around him. Dr. Johnson comes in with a strange look on his face.
"Hello Mr. And Mrs. Carroll. Congratulations once again on your new baby girl", he says. The reason I'm back so soon is I wanted to talk to you about Barbara's illness. "Oh she's fine," Nick says, "and she ain't sick at all. She's perfect." With that, Dr. Johnson exited without another word. Let me explain. They told us just two months after she was born that she has Down syndrome and that many people consider giving there children up for adoption after learning of this disease.
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"I love you, Elsa," he tells me, "and I always will." "Junior, you take good care of your mama and make sure your brothers and sisters do their chores. Ya'll have been my blessing from God, my angels from heaven." Those were his final words, and his last breath of suffering. I kissed him on his forehead just like Mama did the day I got in his old Ford. His battle with cancer was finally over after eleven years, and we were forced to go on without him. Nick Jr., John, Thomas, and Billy all shared the weight of their daddy's casket, while Barbara and Cheryl walked along beside me. We would make it…someway, somehow.
That Nick, Jr. is the spittin' image of his Papa! He comes in every day at six, slams my back door, and smiles just like him. He and his brothers work all day at the seafood house just to keep the business and our family afloat. This year, though, oysters didn't sell as good as they usually do, so money's real tight. Barbara's medicine costs me an arm and a leg, and I don't know what I'm gonna do. A colored lady came by the house today, though, and talked to me about a home in Tallahassee for young people just like Barbara. It's called "Sherwood Oaks." That sounds real nice to me and I think she'll be real happy there. "Oh yes, ma'am," the lady says, "we'll take real good care of her." So I kiss Barbara on the forehead and tell her goodbye as a shiny van sits in our driveway waiting for her. Now I know just how Mama felt.
It's been fifteen years since I had to send Barbara away, and we've made it just fine. My name is no longer Elsa. It's Big Ma! Along with twenty grandchildren, I've accumulated an entirely new identity. Every Christmas Eve four generations of this family comes together to celebrate the passing of another year and the renewal of strength. Smoked turkey glistens on the dining room table with my secret honey glaze, surrounded by delicious stuffin', corn on the cob, ripe candied yams, mouth-watering sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows, and Mama's oversized buttermilk biscuits. After twenty-five years I have the recipe down pat!
Today is June 24, 1997, my birthday! My famous fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried fish, corn bread, and apple pies cover the picnic tables outside. As much as my family discourages it, I insist on cooking the food for my own birthday party. Shoot, if I can survive eighty-nine years of my life, I can surely handle a little cookin'! As my grandmamma once said, food is the nourishment of our happiness and the cuisine of our souls.
I must admit I stay real confused all the time. Today, for instance, everybody was out in my front yard laughin' and carryin' on all day. I was tryin' to get a little rest but they just insisted that I sit out on the porch and get some fresh air 'cause it was my special day. I'm thirty-five years old and I can do whatever I wanna do! I told Nick just last night that he needed to come home from the seafood house and spend more time with me and the kids. He's never here anymore.
I woke up this mornin' with a terrible headache. I think I might be comin' down with the flu. Whatever it is, everybody keeps comin' by to check on me. They even had Mr. Peterson, our local preacher, come by and pray over me. My heavens, it's just a little cold. Nothin' a little tomato soup can't solve!
I'm goin' to visit Mama, Papa, and Nick today. I'm real excited. I talked to 'em on the phone just a few minutes ago. Nick Jr., John, Thomas, Billy, and Cheryl came over to help me pack. I'm takin' my three favorite dresses, my best Sunday hat, and a few stockins. They all took turns kissin' me on the forehead…just like Mama.