Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Oui, Mademoiselle

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I have two college degrees, and yet here I am, crawling around sponging milk up off the floor like some sycophant maitre d' at a fancy French restaurant indulging a tiny, tyrannical diner. Clearly, I've made a wrong turn somewhere. Eleven o'clock on a Saturday morning -- I should be somewhere sipping mimosas and chowing down on a spinach omelet. But this is the gig I signed up for, right?

"The banana bread is not to Mademoiselle's liking this morning? You'd like yet another slice of cheese instead? Mais oui. Mais oui."

Around 8 a.m. it begins. Here she comes: my most difficult patron. As chief cook and bottle-washer at this country-style kitchen, my motto used to be, "I am not a short order cook" -- that is, until she started taking all of her meals here about a year ago. And for a Hobbit, which she appears to be, that's a lot of meals.

First, she starts with what is known as "breakfast" to Hobbits, but what you or I would call "pre-breakfast" -- the dry cereal, toast, or grapes she orders to keep her impatient screeching at bay while I make the real breakfast, or rather "second breakfast," as they say in Middle Earth.

My other regular customer -- we'll call her Miss Thin Mint -- is far more appreciative of my culinary offerings, perhaps because she's been around since the days of the old motto. When Miss Thin Mint first started frequenting my establishment, she subsisted happily on a steady diet of breast milk, air, and the occasional bowl of spaghetti. Eventually, however, enticing aromas broke down her resistance, and her palate grew to appreciate house specialties such as broccoli, scrambled eggs, stir fry, roasted chicken, couscous, garlic red bliss mashed potatoes, and linguine with white clam sauce.

But this Hobbit customer -- we'll call her Mademoiselle Non! -- has never been a reluctant eater. She just wants what she wants when she wants it. But even a willing short-order cook can only do so much for a diner who makes her preferences known via an emphatic "Uh-uh!" and head-shake as the harried head-waitress (also me) rattles off the menu options. The head waitress suspects that this meal-time mutism is elective. These suspicions were confirmed recently when, hungry and frustrated, Mademoiselle Non! finally yelled, "Cracker!" Crackers, cantaloupe, and oatmeal with bananas are among Mademoiselle Non!'s favorites for the pre-noon snack Hobbits call elevenses.

Like many eccentrics, Mademoiselle Non! hates to eat alone, but then she proceeds to harass her fellow tablemates with glass-shattering screams, open-mouth chewing, and, occasionally, flatulence followed by maniacal laughter. Unfortunately, Miss Thin Mint's giggling only serves to encourage this behavior.

"You know," I tell Miss Thin Mint, "if you ignore her, she will stop. Eventually."

Miss Thin Mint, who is wise beyond her years -- and quite chatty -- shakes her head at my naïveté. "She's going to do it no matter what because, remember, the baby is the boss of the world. And, well, she's not a baby baby anymore, but she still thinks she can do anything she wants. She's just that kind of person."

Upon hearing this criticism, Mademoiselle Non! shrieks and tosses a Cheerio at no one in particular. Miss Thin Mint has a brainstorm. "I know! Maybe I should tell her my school motto: 'Think also of the comfort and rights of others.' "

But in Mademoiselle Non!'s world this morning, "others" exist solely to do her bidding. Milk? Did she order milk? Send it back. Better yet, she'll toss it to the floor. Is that a metal spoon Miss Thin Mint has? And I expect her to eat with a plastic spoon-like object? Age discrimination! Her lawyer is going to hear about this. Better yet, she'll just toss the spoon-like object to the floor.

So here I am underneath my kitchen table, collecting plasticware, clad in the same t-shirt and medical scrubs I slept in, believing that someday my clothes won't tell the story of what my kids ate for breakfast, reminding myself that I'm smart and capable. That I have a marketable skill -- several, in fact. That this is a choice. I am choosing to be here on my knees, at their service.

Struggling actors bide their time as waiters. Struggling mama-writers pay their dues as well. Mais oui. Mais oui.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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