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Mama Love would cll out to me as soon as I stepped through the door.  I never realized how much this acknowledgement meant until she died and nobody called out to me when I entered the house that used to be my  home.  I loved being noticed and welcomed when I came home.  I know now it was just another way of her telling me, “I love you, I see you, and I notice you are home.  Your presence matters to me.”  I would take my shoes off and make my way down the hallway (a.k.a. the “hall of fame,” named this because fromt he tops of the shoe racks to the ceiling on botrhe sides the walls were covered with pictures and accomplishments.  School pictures, family pictures, action pictures and any plaques that we had won were proudly displayed for any who cam into our house to see.

As I walked into the kitchen it was my habi to immediately go to Mama Love and give her a hug and kiss.  Mama Love was a big woman.  Her size was comforingly soldid.  You felt her when you hugged her or she hugged you.  Her love surrounded you.  She was warm, alive.  She would then pull back and looking into my eyes ask, “How are you?”  If I said I was good she would not respond, just continure to look into my eyes.  Then, if she was satisfied I was telling the truth, she would turn back to her cooking.

In my house, meals were made with love.  We were not rich, and with four or more boys at any given time eating, simple, less expensive meals were the norm.  Yet, in the years since her passing whenever I have eaten the same hamburger helper meals, they have never been able o compare.  The only thing I can attribure this to is the absense of Mama Love.  I think it was becauise of how much she loved us.  Her cooking was an expression of this love and wanting us to be happy and healthy.

The people that suffered the most from my learning how to cook were my brothers.  We didn’t waste a lot of food in our house so even if I messed up on the measuring of ingredients the meal was served, and in the beginning I messed up a lot.  Mama Love was not one for measurement utensils.  She was from the school of eyeballing it.  What she neglected to mention was that her skill at eyeballing was acquired through years of practice.  Needless to say, in the beginning as loath as she was to throwing food away, sometimes we had McDonald’s, or cereal, or take-out.  Like the first time I made one of my favorite meals, tacos (with soft taco shells of course, because who really likes hard taco shells which crumble or break, and generally are more frustrating than enjoyable) and I “eyeballed” the amount of seasoning, which resulted in taco meat that was inedible and identifiable as taco meat only to me, because I was the one who cooked it.

The next step after the measurements was the amount of time that the food cooked for.  Just as she was not a believer in actually measuring ingredients, she also did not believe in timers.  This was evidenced in her multi-taking abilities.  She would put the food on the stove or even the oven, then give baths, correct homework, coordinate rides to or from practices, dispense discipline and whatever else needed to be done.  No matter what she was doing she knew when the food needed to be stirred, when more or less heat was needed, and even when it was done.  I can’t tell you how many times she would be in other parts of the house and would call out: “Mark/Dan.Leo – stir the food, take it out of the over, turn the stove off.”  It took more time to learn this skill than it did to  measure-to-eyeball ingredients.  I would put food on, then get distracted by my phone or the t.v. or a book.  I would remember what I was supposed to be doing when I smelled the food burning.

This lead to a rule: “If you’re cooking, you’re cooking; everything else can wait.”  The implementation of this rule lead to a dramatic and immediate improvement in the meals I prepared, and my brothers were very appreciative of this.  As my skill increased I began to understand why my Mama Love liked cooking so much.  It felt good to feed my family, to know that they relied on me to provide for them and to make sure that not only it was filling but that it tasted good as well.  On nights that I had successfully made and served dinner I would sit and eat with a deep sense of satisfaction that I had never felt before.  I had accepted responsibility and was helping my family.

Later on, when Mama Love became sick, cooking turned from something I did because I wanted , to something I did because it was needed.  These were some of my first lessons in being a man.  I learned that responsibility meant doing the things that you needed to do instead of only doing things that you wanted to do.  Since Mama Love died, I cannot cook without thinking about her.  The times that we spent in the kitchen are some of the best memories of my life.l  In fact, I don’t like cooking if it is only for myself; for me, cooking is intertwined with family and love.

As I am,

Prince

danny.graduation

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Mama Love insisted that if we were home that the boys would eat together.  Most nights she would eat with us, the exceptions being if we had pissed her off severely or if my father was home.  If he was home, then they would eat together in the living room or the study.  As a family we spent a lot of time around each other.  I can remember wondering why, when I went to my friend’s houses, why they didn’t eat together, or spend as much time around each other.  A big reason behind learning to cook was just wanting to be around Mama Love.  My younger brothers had no desire to learn; their interest in food began and ended with the placement of food on the table.  I selfishly wanted to,and got to, spend time with her that was ours alone.

When I first moved in with the Fortunes, there were already two older boys there, Nate and Mark.  Nate was long-term foster care – he had lived with the Fortunes for around eight years.  After I’d been there for a year, Nate graduated from high school and moved back with his biological family.  Mark was adopted by the Fortunes exactly a year before I was and was the oldest until he graduated and moved out (well, he stayed for a year after graduation, “finding his way” and all that.)  For about four years after I was the oldest son and with my father spending more time out of the house than in it, I was the de facto head of the household, with most if not all of the responsibilities that came with it.

Mama Love had over fifty foster kids during her time working with DHS, so I have spent more time wiping butts, giving baths and telling bed-time stories than some parents I know.  We used to get looks when we went out because of how many of us there were and the fact that some of us were lack and some of us were white.  My father is 6’6″, 280 pounds and black and Mama Love was a red-headed, short, white woman.  Mark was around 5’9″, stocky, almost pudgy white, with short, spiked hair.  I was and still am a 5’9″ dark, full-blooded Haitian, Leo (another adopted-brother) a 6’6″ light skinned half-Jamaican.  James, a biological Fortune, was young, white with bright red hair (think of the kid from “Jerry McGuire,”) glasses and freckles, while Tony (adopted brother) was young, half-black / half-white with green eyes.  I never looked at my upbringing as different.  It was just the way my family was.

My mother was the keeper of my secrets, hopes and dreams.  She was the one person in my life that has ever loved me unconditionally.  As my father and I were too similar to talk, share, or even like each other much, she was by default, my mother and father (him not being around much helped as well.)  While, in fairness, my adopted father did teach me some aspects of how to be a man, some lessons I needed (like to always take responsibility,)  other lessons that shaped me at an early age have left me wondering the cost, i.e. the ones about how men never show emotions like pain and hurt, or how men never cry and rarely apologize.  It was Mama Love who really taught me why it is important to be a man.  How it is your actions and not your age that make you a man, and that the two best things that I can do for my loved ones are as follows: firstly, if you really love someone then you are there for them at all times, not just when you’re needed, and secondly that it is more important to make sure loved ones have what they need rather than what they really want.

I remember walking into the house after school or practice (I played three sports: football, basketball and baseball, so almost every day after school I had practice or games and wouldn’t get home until four or five at the earliest) and being greeted by the smells of cooking food and the sounds of my brothers.  It was as if when I opened the door to my house I entered another world.  The sounds would hit me as soon as I opened the fake wooden-paneled door, depending on the time my brothers would be in the room on my right, “the library” (which is where we had desks and computers for homework or personal use) doing their homework quietly.  Well, it was supposed to be done quietly, but, when have boys ever been in a group and ever done anything quietly?  In fact, it was when we were quiet that we were up to something.  As soon as we stopped making noise you could count on Mama Love coming to investigate.

When I would shut the door the smell of cooking food would permeate my nostrils.  It was as if my house was a cocoon that opened itself up and embraced me with sounds and smells of love, like they were just waiting for me to come home and now my night, my family’s night and our house’s night was complete.

(More to follow.)

As I am,

Prince

danny.2014

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