At the same time she says "sisters, right," the grocery woman gives a little squeeze to my hand and makes a gesture just short of a wink to show us she's well aware that this is a mother-daughter duo.
The middle daughter and I burst out laughing. She--like her sisters--is now a grown woman, a black woman. In the past week, we've encountered two different women who could not see our relationship.
"How did you guess?" the middle daughter asks the grocery woman, who is laughing with us.
"Because you look exactly alike!" she shouts gaily.
My daughter and I have been together this week for another rite of passage: from minor we have progressed to major surgery. Both of us have survived the knife.
What, then, had the grocery woman seen that the others hadn't? What has appeared to augment our resemblance--pain?
And does this shared pain create the same face, differently skinned?
And who else sees it?
In the recovery room I had asked on my daughter's behalf for pain medicine. "Not yet," said the nurse of the snapping eyes.
A few moments later I asked again. "Sorry," I said, "but you know how mothers are."
"You're her mother?"
Courtesy falling like rain.
But who had she seen before? Who was that woman hung over the bedrail, loving someone?
Soon, another nurse--a young one, mean to the bone--has the middle daughter out of bed and in the bathroom with the water running full force.
I offer instead to whisper in her ear, the way I used to.
"What are mothers for?" I joke to the nurse, who overreacts with even more noise than the splashing water, on and on about how I couldn't possibly be, I'm too young, etc., but we know what she's covering.
"Loud," says the middle daughter, back in bed, thumbing the painkiller button.
Later, I muse about these two women.
Flowers on the bed table, heart balloons in the air, the middle daughter, propped up and frowning dismissively, says, "Oh, they probably just thought we were dykes."
At her house, in the beautiful spread of her life, I tell her I'm going to write this story. That I'll begin with the grocery woman, because she had good eyes.
The middle daughter jumps on this. She says, "There you go, Ma."
And off she goes, to work again. The two of us sit side by side in the small city airport.
There's always something at the airport. This time it's a young black man, with a young white woman seeing him off. They're not lovers, that much is clear, perhaps new acquaintances. They sit facing us in the narrow lobby. The plane is delayed, and we four--he, she, the middle daughter, and I--have nothing to do but scope each other.
Suddenly, between us intrudes a noisy, excited group, led by a sexy overcontrolling mother in a black catsuit, missing her two top front teeth.
Into my ear the middle daughter whispers, "Somebody couldn't take it and popped her."
I laugh out loud.
"Ma, it's rude to laugh at people in airports," she says, laughing, and when I look up, still laughing, I catch the eye of the young black man. He's now standing, his face a mask of controlled amusement. He almost smiles. Perhaps, as he passes me, the one who catches his smile is the middle daughter.
Or perhaps not. Gently, gallant in the bumrush, he spreads a protective hand on the back of the woman he's with.
I know my daughter doesn't miss this.
I think about black and white women in competition. For what hard reasons? What's to be addressed? What will happen if we don't? If my middle daughter--my sister, right?--is black, and I am white, we have to keep thinking.
We lean against each other and talk. She says, "Three minutes more, you'll have to pay to park another hour."
She's old enough to dismiss me; still I dawdle, kiss her goodbye twice. On the way out I'm thinking in Spanish, m'ija, mi hija, such a pretty way to say it.
The parking lot gate is manned by a boy, whose sweet smile recalls to me the middle daughter's high school boyfriend. I know his mother loves him. I wish I were looking at a million of him. And he doesn't charge me for another hour, although according to the clock in my car I am nearly five minutes late leaving.
In my gratitude I fumble a dime, which gets lost on the seat.
"Well," he says with a pleasant laugh, "at least you know where it's at."Which, I suppose, is both the problem and the start of any solution.