The Day Mama Went on Strike

The Day Mama Went on Strike

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

The Day Mama Went on Strike

I knew something was wrong as soon as I opened my eyes that frosty Saturday morning. No one had turned up the heat for one thing. That is, Mama had not turned up the heat. And I did not smell any breakfast smells. Something was definitely wrong. So I ran to the hall, quick-switched the thermostat to sixty-five and jumped back into bed.

But I couldn’t stop wondering what was wrong. I jumped out again and went to the kitchen. Nothing. No crumbs, no coffee.

Even if it was Saturday, Mama always got up early anyway. My sister, Althea, was still asleep in our room. I knew this because no one was in the bathroom, and Althea was always either asleep or in the bathroom. That was her whole life.

So I went to look for Mama. And there she was on the living-room sofa. That’s where she always slept because we had only one bedroom. Sometimes Althea or I said, “Mama, you come on and sleep in here, and we’ll take turns sleeping on the couch,” and Mama said, “With all that giggling and snoring in there? Uh-uh. No thanks.”

Anyway, I went to look at Mama. Mama was not asleep. She was looking back at me. She was looking at me with both eyes. “Don’t bother me,” she said. “I am on strike.”

“What do you mean, Mama?”

“I mean I am on strike, girl, and you better leave me alone.” She threw back the covers. She picked up this sign, you know, like you see people on TV marching around with that say ON STRIKE.

“That’s not funny, Mama,” I said. “Where’d you get it?”

“No, it isn’t funny, and I made it myself.”

“Are you going out somewhere on strike then?” I gave a little laugh.

“No,” she said. “I am on strike right here.”

I went to wake up Althea. I didn’t know what else to do.

Althea was older, but she mostly didn’t know anything.

Still, maybe together we would have an idea.

We went to the kitchen, and I told Althea what Mama said. “And I’m hungry,” I finished.

“So,” Althea said, “eat.” She looked at herself in the mirror, rearranging her bangs.

I stuck my head into the living room. “Mama,” I said, “are you going to make corn cakes this morning?”

“Definitely . . .” Mama said.

“Oh, good,” said Althea.

“. . . not,” Mama finished.

“Are you going to make anything at all?”

“I am going to make tracks. Nothing but tracks.”

She stood up and started slowly circling the room, carrying her sign and chanting.

“What’s Mama saying?” Althea asked.

We listened hard. It sounded like: “I don’t know, and I don’t care. Going to spend the day in my underwear.”

“Man,” I said. “Mama has gone bananas.”

Althea looked scared. “What’ll we do?” she asked.

“We’ll have to bring her to her senses,” I said. I sat down at the table and wrote a note:

Dear Mama,

Now cut that out. We will make our bed, if that’s what you want . . . right after we eat. But you should not go on strike. It could be bad for us. We are only little children and we need a mama to take care of us.

Lilly and Althea,
Your only daughters

I took the note to Mama. Mama read it. She took a pencil out of her pocket and wrote an answer. She folded it and gave it to me. In the kitchen Althea bent over my shoulder, and I unfolded the note and read what Mama had written.

“HA!” it said.

“Is that all?” asked Althea.

“That is all,” I said.

“What is the matter with Mama? I didn’t do anything.” Althea looked around, waving her hands over the dishes in the sink, her books and papers on the floor, her left boot under the table.

I said, “Neither did I. Except that night when I wouldn’t set the table, and we had to eat on the floor.”

Althea said, “I liked it. It was like a picnic. And all I did was, I was late for dinner.”

“Five times.”

“Well, that’s better than six.”

“Mama sure got tired of sending me down the street looking for you,” I said. “And I sure got tired of going too.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know.” I pushed the laundry basket aside and sat down. “First, let’s eat.”

We poured milk over cereal, and I spilled some, and Althea put her finger in it and wrote a bad word on the table, and I told her to stop that, and we had a very small fight right there.

Mama started chanting louder and louder and stamping her feet while she was walking around on strike.

“Man,” Althea whispered. “We better be quiet.”

So we went into our room to think about things. Well, I did. Althea went into the bathroom and looked into the mirror. When she opened the door it was all steamy and a big cloud followed her out and she said, “Is Mama still— you know?”

“Yeah,” I said. Althea had her hair in this new ’do, and she asked me if I liked it.

“I don’t know,” I said, and Althea said, “You can never make up your mind about anything,” and we had another very small fight.

And then Mama started chanting again. Louder. And with new words: “I don’t care, and I don’t know. I’m on strike and ready to blow.”

I peeked out into the living room. “Wow,” I said. I turned to Althea. “She has on the green dress!”

“Oh, man,” Althea said. “This is serious.”

This green dress was one Mama got from a friend, and it was so shiny you could almost see yourself in it, and Mama had green shoes too, and you could see your face in them if you bent over, and she was leaving.

“Mama,” I said, “where are you going?”

“Out,” she said.

I was cool. “Out where?” I asked. “In case someone calls.”

“No one will call. But I left a note just in case.”

“Oh. What does it say?”

“It says I went out.” She pulled on her wooly gloves.

“That’s not telling us very much, Mama.”

“Strikers do not have to tell everything they know.”

“I don’t want to know everything you know, Mama. I only want to know where you are going.”

“I told you. I am going out. Do not worry. I’ve checked with Mrs. Watkins upstairs. She will be home all day if you need her. The icebox is full of food, and the drawer is full of socks. You’ll be okay.” She went out. And she slammed the door.

I looked at Althea. Althea looked at me. Althea looked in the mirror. We looked at television. There was nothing good on, but we watched till we couldn’t stand it any more.

“Well?” I said.

“Well, what?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel lonely, and you’re right here.”

“Me too,” Althea said. “I feel lonely and awful. In my stomach, right here.” She put her hand on her chest, right where mine was hurting.

“Mama is mean,” I said.

“She is?”

“She left us, didn’t she, without a word?”

“Well, yes.”

“I don’t think she’s mean. I miss her, and I love her, and I’m going to cry.”

“No, you’re not. No crying!”

Althea’s chin quivered, and her voice shook, and she hollered at me. “Yes, I am. I’m crying. I want Mama to come home.” Big tears came out of her eyes and rolled down her face.

I said, “Here now, listen to me. We should keep busy. That will help the time pass faster.”

“No.”

“Yes it will. Before you know it Mama will come back and you’ll say, ‘Oh, Mama—back already?’”

“I will not.”

“Yes you will. Now come on.” I took Althea to our room by the hand. “Here,” I said. “Separate the clean stuff from the dirty stuff.”

“If it’s on the floor,” she said, wiping her eyes, “it’s dirty.”

“No, no. There’s a difference between floor-dirty and wearing-dirty. Now do it.”

Althea made piles of stuff as I threw it out to her, her head in the closet, like a dog digging a hole and throwing dirt up behind him. I gave Althea fifty cents and the bag of laundry and she came back for fifty more, and then she ran to the Laundromat. While she was gone I made the bed. Althea had 51 books and 6,789 crumbs in her side. I also swept the floor.

Althea came back and said that she was not busy any more and the time was not either passing fast. “It’s only two o’clock,” she said. She started quivering her chin-skin again, and I put both hands up.

“Wait!” I hollered. “Don’t do that. We’ll cook!”

Althea looked at me funny.

“You know. Like bake.”

So we did, and I made a cake, and it smelled chocolaty in the oven, and the icing was warm and sweet. Then I set the table and Althea made the tacos, and we went into the living room and sat.

At five o’clock Mama came in.

Althea jumped up. “Oh, Mama,” she said. She threw her arms around Mama. “Where’ve you been?”

“Well, I went to the library and got a book about voodoo and then to the art museum, to look at watercolors, and then I bought something at the Emporium.”

“What did you buy?”

“A new green dress.”

I stood up and went to the kitchen. I turned on the oven for the tacos.

Mama put on her apron and made a salad. Althea brewed tea, and I grated cheese.

Mama pulled her new green dress out of the bag. We stood around her and said how pretty it was.

And it was, too.

Nancy West

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