Momma, Momma, watch me.”
Cecile Dowd turned from the old blackened cookstove where the chicken broth simmered and peeked into the bedroom at her brown-haired three-year-old daughter who jumped on the thin mattress. “Millie Mae, be careful. You’ll fall.”
“No, Momma.” But at the next landing, her foot missed the edge of the bed, and she tumbled off.
Fat tears rolled down her cheeks, and wails cut the peace of the early afternoon. Cecile rushed to her and cradled Millie in her arms. “That’s why you must obey Momma. Then you won’t get hurt. Do you understand?”
Millie sniffled. “I be good.” “Why don’t you play with your dolly so I can finish lunch?” Cecile kissed the top of her daughter’s head.
“Okay.” Millie picked up her secondhand, soft-bodied baby. She smoothed down the yellow dress Cecile had sewn for the doll. “My baby pretty.” Cecile smiled. “Yes, she is.
But she’s not as pretty as you are.”
“Momma’s pretty.” Could a heart fill and burst with love? Millie followed Cecile into the kitchen and plopped on the floor with the toy, pretending to pour tea for her. Good. Maybe a few uninterrupted minutes. While the stock bubbled, Cecile cut and buttered bread to eat with it. She wiped her hands on her apron.
What was she feeling on it? Oatmeal. From breakfast. Great. She dashed to the bedroom to grab a clean apron. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Millie as she toddled toward the hot oven. “Millie.” She raced to the kitchen, caught the girl with her hand outstretched, and plopped the child into her too-small-for-her crib. Millie tugged on the already-peeling rose-peppered wallpaper.
Maybe that would keep her occupied for a few minutes. Before Cecile could tie her apron, Millie climbed over the crib’s rails and headed toward the kitchen. “Millie, no.” The girl stopped for just a second then continued in the direction of danger.
Even with only two rooms in the apartment, keeping track of her was impossible.
She scooped up Millie and balanced the little one on her hip. Millie squirmed and hung upside down in an attempt to break free from Cecile’s hold.
“Stop it this instant, Millie Mae. Do you hear me?”
The child deserved a harsher punishment, but Cecile had no energy to mete it out. Her arms ached from the effort required to maintain her grip. When Millie continued to wriggle, Cecile swatted her little bottom. The child let loose with an earsplitting howl. Tears burned the back of Cecile’s throat. “Hush, hush, Momma’s sorry. But you must behave.” Oh, how could
Nathaniel have left her alone to deal with all of this? A year after his death from an infection, they were low on money. Just a few months’ worth of rent were left in the bank account. Her part-time job at the nursery school helped, but the savings continued to dwindle. She glanced at the letter lying on the corner of the worn kitchen table. One she’d sent to her parents in Massachusetts, begging for help. Another one returned unopened. With Nathaniel’s parents deceased, she had no one else to turn to. She sat the girl on one