where my mother is

So today we went to the zoo, for a fun little treat.  We haven’t been since Halloween weekend, I think. All the animals were chubby with winter. The pig is pregnant. The alligators lined up five in a row to sun on the concrete wall. One of the bald eagles took a bath in front of us, dowsing wings in the cool pond and flapping them uselessly to get the water off. Selam got sprayed and shrieked with joy. (All of the eagles in the zoo are injured and unable to be reintroduced in the wild.  Hence, the eagle’s flaps didn’t get it anywhere–only one wing works.)

She found a friend from her after school program and chased him around and around near the bear’s den.  He gained on her and she fell, trying to make up the distance.  She ripped her pants and bloodied her knee. I picked her up and sat on a picnic bench while her shoulders heaved with great sighs.  The injury was minor.  Perhaps she was embarrassed, or tired, or surprised. In any case, she couldn’t shake it for a while.

After visiting her favorite exhibit (the carousel horses), we took some time to play on the new playground.  I sat on a picnic bench and watched her climb, marveling at how bold she’s become, at how she’s learned to trust those colt-like legs.  Selam makes friends in every playground.  She played with the other kids, quickly learning their names.

I saw an adult approach her, ask her a question and heard Selam respond to her.  Selam looked up at me and waved, grinning broadly. The woman then went to a cluster of other adults and said something to the effect of “that child doesn’t seem to have a mother here.” I waved my hand at her and smiled, “she’s mine” I called out.  The woman looked right through me and kept looking about for the mysterious mother.  The other parents clucked and looked about.

Selam walked on a balance beam, slowly and carefully. She got to the end, jumped off, beamed and shouted, “Mommy, did you see?”  She ran to me and I picked her up.

The mother who felt in charge came over, “is this your daughter?”

“Yes,” I said, “I waved at you when you were looking for her mother.”

“She said that she didn’t know where her mother was. We almost called park police.”

“Well, I was right here.”

“Well, how would we know you were her mother?” she said.

I looked at the long-legged girl wrapped around my waist, and smiled.

“Selam, did you tell this lady that you didn’t know where your mother was?”


“Why did you do that?”

“You’re my mommy,” she said, and laid her head on my shoulder. She looked up at Mother In Charge with a coquettish smile.

Now, I know that Selam knows the word mother. She knows I am her mother, even if she never uses that word.   I’m not sure why she decided to play with this woman.  I’m not sure why this woman thought Selam was mother-less. None of the parents were actively on the playground with the kids. It was a small playground and there were only 5 or 6 kids playing together nicely.  All the parents were on the picnic tables watching. Most of them chatted together.

“Well, when you don’t tell me who your mother is, we think your mother has run off and left you,” the mother who felt in charge said to Selam.

Selam’s eyes grew wet and round. She thinks she’s in trouble.

“Well, thank you for your concern, but Selam is fine.  It’s my job to watch her, and trust me, my eyes were on her.I know it’s hard to tell we’re related by the way we look, but all you have to do is follow the direction of my eyes to know which one I’m watching.”

“Well, you just never know if people would just abandon their children….”

She walks away. Her voice trails off. I’m hoping that is because she’s embarrassed.

“Why did that mommy think you would abandon me? What’s abandon?”

“Sweetie, that lady is really, really mixed up.  Abandon is when you walk away from something. Would mommy every walk away from you?”

“Never, never.”


She slips her hand in mine, and we go to the outdoor stage where Selam likes for me to be the introducer and her to be the rock star. She’s singing “you are my sunshine,” into an imaginary mike while all around people gather up their children.  Names echo across the empty pathways.  There are meltdowns and pleas for just one more visit to the prairie dogs.  Car keys are pulled out. Trips to the bathroom are ordered. The noise of parent and child is comforting, familiar.

The park is closing. It’s time to gather up your children and take them on home.

“you’ll never know dear, how much I love you…”

5 thoughts on “where my mother is

  1. Oh, I know that experience all too well. Our first one took place at Crane Beach near Boston, when the woman who thought she was in charge told me flat out that the little girl walking in front of me was clearly not being watched.

    This post sets up a series of emotions in me that has lain dormant for several years now, but threatens to rear its head now that my grandson is about to be on the planet.

    You write so beautifully, and you are her perfect mother.

  2. What is tough, YT, is the assumption that because there is a black child at the park with no black mother present–she must be abandoned. What would the assumption be if the (well dressed, except for the rip in the pants, well groomed, clean, articulate) child were white? It never occurred to this woman that maybe she was adopted, maybe she was on a playdate with someone else’s mom, maybe she’s from a biracial family. Selam wasn’t upset about anything, so there really was no need to look for her mother, and again, the only thing I was doing was looking at Selam. I guess that’s one thing that I’ve learned from this experience–when you don’t know who the mother or father is, look at the adults. It’s easier for me to match the adult with the child than the child with the adult.

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