WEDNESDAY: Pithom and Ramses

BY GILA GREEN

Copyright is held by the author.

“THAT’S A lot of peanut butter,” Francesca says.

Francesca is my mother-in-law. Her real name is Nora, but Francesca is what it says on her business cards, her personal notes, even the birthday cards she writes to my daughter.

Francesca puts lipstick on, again. It is red lipstick to me, but I know to her it is Low Flame or Night-After Rose or Devastating Heart. She checks the mirror in the living room, fusses with her blonde streaked hair. She wears pants that look as though they have been smeared on with black paint and high heels that show off her pedicure. Her top is short-sleeved and V-necked and clings to her body. When I sort the laundry on Francesca’s visits to Toronto, I have more than once mistaken her diminutive clothing for my seven- year-old daughter’s. Around her neck is a thick chain that looks to me as though it has been removed from a Harley Davidson, but I have already been assured: this is the latest fashion and reminded: what do I know about fashion?

We arrived in Johannesburg yesterday. My husband comes tomorrow. A few minutes after we entered the house, my seven-year-old asked: “Granny, why is your skin the same colour as pita?” In Toronto we eat a lot of pita.

“You can call me Francesca, darling. What did you say? The colour of pita? We don’t eat pita like that in Johannesburg.”

I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep my face neutral and made a mental note to speak to my daughter about tact. By the time her grandmother responded, my daughter was distracted by the three bear-like dogs and the African maid, who was wiping her hands on her spotless, white apron as she exited the kitchen. Francesca was busy telling the gardener where to put our two suitcases.

Now we have decided to spend the day shopping and Francesca waits for me to finish breakfast. My daughter has gone to a children’s activity with her grandfather. I have no idea where he has taken her, but I imagine it is some kind of gymboree or indoor climbing play structure. I hope he remembers that she is seven, not three. I dislike shopping, but I have no other choice. There is nothing else to do in Johannesburg with my husband’s mother and besides, she says we need to look at some items she needs for wedding gifts, for the house, one or two things that might make me more…. She usually has a hard time coming up with a word there. Just as well. There is shopping and there is going out for coffee. Going out for coffee is something we did yesterday after dinner, just the two of us. My father-in-law stayed home because my daughter passed out early.

“Why are you eating your cappuccino with a spoon?” Francesca asked me while the steam rose from our cups. I stopped using the spoon.

“Now you’re stirring it around with a straw. A cappuccino?” She continued. “Who drinks coffee with a straw and a spoon? Really!”

I did not bother drinking the rest of it. I’d rather sip from the bloody Nile.

I go to the cupboard, search for a larger plate; my breakfast doesn’t fit on the side plate the maid put out for me. Francesca herself ate breakfast three hours ago, at six o’clock in the morning, 20 minutes before her daily aerobics class. If you call three white pills, one quarter-sized orange tablet dissolved in water and half a cup of rooibos tea breakfast.

I am having crackers and peanut butter. At least, I’m trying to.

“Sure is a lot of peanut butter on that one little cracker,” Francesca adds. I still haven’t responded. I haven’t responded to Francesca in 10 years, not really. I spread the peanut butter on the cracker with more force than necessary. The cracker breaks a little. I decide that a little more peanut butter should hold that crack together; keep the break to a superficial run. I plunge the knife back into the jar and scoop down deeply from the bottom. I spread again.

“Are you really going to eat all of that? Peanut butter is fattening, you know?” Francesca continues.

I count how many days there are on my ticket. I remember the conversation I had three months ago with my husband. “One week. We have to visit South Africa for one week a year. What’s a few comments about food? What do you care what she says all of the time?”

Some of the peanut butter has leaked on to my thumb. I put my thumb in my mouth and suck. I lose control of the knife and it clangs on to the just-mopped floor. Now there is peanut butter on my no-name shoe, the floor, a spot of it on the skirt I bought in my fifth month of pregnancy. The nutty spread seems to be multiplying like the Jewish slaves in Egypt.

“Oh my goodness!” says Francesca. “What a mess is going on here with your breakfast. A helluva mess,” she continues. In an instant the maid appears with a wet rag. She wipes the floor, the tip of my shoe. I stop her at my skirt by darting out of the way.

I take the first bite. What Francesca does not realize is that it is no longer peanut butter, it is mortar. These are not five-grain, whole wheat thins. These are bricks. I am not making breakfast, I am building pyramids. Pithom and Ramses. Pharaoh sounds so much more cutting edge than Francesca, so much hipper.

“For heaven sakes! I have a hair appointment in a couple of hours and a manicure. Are you going to get through that soon? If you call that breakfast. You should be taking care of yourself. Did you see the figure on that friend of mine yesterday at the café? She’s 10 years older than you, but who would know it?”

I try to recall the visual technique from my life coaching class. We are learning how to stay away from people and places that project negative energy. That condemns Francesca’s house, pretty much the entire African continent. Francesca dissolves another tablet in bottled water.

“Aren’t you feeling well, Francesca?” I ask.

“Don’t be silly. I feel like a million bucks,” Francesca answers. “I look like a million bucks, too,” she adds, jangling an armful of bracelets in front of my eyes. They are silver, gold, bronze, all of the colours of ancient Egyptian jewelry.

“These are much less expensive than they look,” she says, glancing at my bare arms. There’s nothing jangling on them except extra skin. “I’m taking this in case I get a headache,” she says. She tilts her head back and swallows the mixture in one gulp. “I can’t shop with a headache.”

I nod with my eyes on my plate.

It took 400 years to build Pithom and Ramses. Today, they are still there for tourists to gawk at and photograph, for archeologists to mull over. The Pharaohs, of course, are just mummies now. Entombed. Wrapped up with their jewelry, their pets, their maids. Maybe even their sons and daughters-in-law.

2 comments

  1. Moira Garland

    I love this story, expressing suppressed family resentments so powerfully. And what a great title! Must look up these Egyptians now 🙂

  2. JAZZ

    I’ve read this author’s literary C.V. And I was very impressed. However, I would leave this story of two implausible women off.
    The Nits:
    ** who goes to Egypt for a week
    ** who let’s anyone talk to her like that
    ** who doesn’t ask where her child is going in a foreign land

    Francesca narrowly escapes being a stereotype, but is preferably to her long suffering, martyr of a daughter-in-law.

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