“Mama! Mabel has a clothespin on her nose. She said she wants to be white with luscious flowing hair.” Nathan’s laugh was as robust as his entrance into my room. “What five-year-old says luscious? You better monitor what she watches, Mama.”
I started towards the door, but his twelve-year-old lanky frame blocked the entryway.
“You better brace yourself: it’s bad.” He leaned in closer to me and said, “Are you sure she’s my sister and not the milkman’s daughter?”
“I’m just saying.” He twirled a finger in a circle by his ear, crossed his eyes, and stuck out his tongue. “Mabel is going loco.” He danced off towards his room, laughing like a loon.
I headed in the kitchen and choked at the sight that met me. “Good grief, Mabel, what have you done to yourself?”
Mabel stared back at me. She had covered her face and hair in flour, revealing only her sparkling brown eyes and pink, kissable lips. Her curly black hair looked like Don King’s on a good day.
I could’ve bawled her out or humoured her.
“You missed a spot by your forehead.”
She gave me a lopsided grin, took a handful of flour out of the bag and slapped it on her face.
“Uncle Max said I have to wear a clothespin every day for about ten minutes, and after a week I’ll have a pointy nose,” she said.
Lord, please, don’t let me hurt that idiot!
“Baby, your Uncle Max was making a joke.” A huge glop of paste dripped from her chin and landed on the table.
Mabel screwed her eyes up and looked at me sideways. I gave a wary smile back and sauntered to the fridge.
“Let’s have some chocolate milk, and we’ll talk.”
“Oh, no, Mama. Uncle Max said that I need to drink white milk because it will make me lighter; chocolate milk will make me darker. He told me that it’s better for him to drink chocolate milk, because he’s a man. It won’t make him darker, only handsomer for the laadiies.” She drawled it out in fair imitation of Max’s “lounge lizard” impression.
One, two . . . . He would pay for this.
“Are you okay, Mama?”
“I’m fine, Mabel. I’m making a note to Santa Claus to put hot coals in Max’s stocking.”
“There’s no such thing as Santa. Uncle Max said so.”
“My brother is full of valuable information, isn’t he?” I sat down beside her, pulled the clothespin off her nose and watched, with amusement, as Mabel picked up the mirror on the table.
“It’s still wide.”
“Give it a few days.” Why was I encouraging her?
“I want hair like Beth.”
A small glimmer of light flared in the back of my mind as I began to suspect the cause of all this.
“Baby, this is the way God made you.”
“Humph.” She kicked the leg of the table, and stuck out her bottom lip.
“Did Beth say something to you?”
“No, she said she was going to paint her skin brown today. I didn’t have peach paint, so I used flour instead.”
I put my hand over my mouth to hide the smile on my face, and when I finished with Mabel I would call Chelle to make sure we’d exchange photos of the girls.
“Barry called me Bubble Lips, and said my bum is the size of Texas.” She pouted. “And he called me Nappy Head Girl.” One hand flung out in dramatic gesture as a gunk of flour hit the sink. “He said that’s why he’s dating Emma down the street; he said he can put his hand through her hair without getting his fingers caught and her lips are…” The drama dropped from her voice; for a second something glistened in her eyes.
Cousin Barry was now on my most wanted list.
“Is that why you threw away the doll I gave you?”
She nodded. “She’s ugly, Mama. Brown skin and big fat lips. I hate her.”
Tears welled up in my eyes.
Mabel stroked my hand. “Don’t cry, Mama, you can share the white milk with me, so you can be white, too.”
Strangling my youngest child would be illegal, so I laughed instead.
I wiped the tears off my cheeks. “When you say you hate the doll, you’re insulting your family. Did you know when your grandfather worked as a carpenter he wasn’t allowed to use the same bathroom as the white workers, because he was black?”
Her eyes widened. “Really?”
I wanted her to ponder this for a moment.
“Mabel, it didn’t break his spirit, because he wasn’t ashamed of being black. He worked hard, had faith in God, stayed strong and passed those beliefs to our family. We never felt as though we couldn’t pursue our passions because of our skin colour.”
She studied me for awhile, then sighed.
“What do you think?”
That “hmm” was a good sign. It meant she liked what she heard, but wanted to mull it over for a bit.
“I’ll ask Mrs. Johnson to put some braids in your hair. How does that sound?”
“Oh, yes, please.” She clapped her hands. “What about my lips and bum; can you make them smaller?
“Baby, women are injecting fat into their lips to have bubble lips like yours.”
“Eeewww!” She scrunched her face in disgust.
“Gross, huh? And trust me, when you get older you’ll like having a round bum when wearing a pair of jeans.”
“So, white milk won’t make me white?”
I shook my head. “But you’ll have strong bones. That has to count for something, right?”
“And chocolate milk won’t make me darker?”
“No, only sweeter.”
“I’m already sweet, Mama.”
“Yes, you are,” I replied, with a smile.
“I don’t think I’ll let Uncle Max drink my chocolate milk anymore.”
I leaned over and kissed her floured forehead.
That’s my girl.
Ladonna A. Watkins was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, but now lives in Southern California with her husband and two children.