Read previous chapters of View from the Pepper Tree here.
Leda wonders how her mother had ever dealt with the difficulties of raising so many children alone. Caring for Walt, his body weak and infant-like, reminds her of caring for a child. He cannot not roll over or sit up. He can barely force a lopsided smile when watching the boxing matches that once elicited jubilation or swearing, depending on who was winning, and he often drools while eating. Being an invalid has made him as helpless as a tiny child, just newly formed and born to this world of tears.
Leda remembers her first pregnancy. She had been sick most of the time, and with she and Walt barely married, he worked most of the time while she tried to keep down dry toast and apple juice. That had been a trying yet exciting time. She could feel the smallest movements from her first child, as if a fish were swishing its tail inside her belly. As she grew, Walt seemed to grow more distant, no longer interested in her body and their marital bed. She found this disappointing, but also decided that it must be normal. She did not want anything to hurt the forming child inside her, so abstinence seemed the best route anyway.
After Janet was born, things went back to normal. Walt spent time doting on her again, bringing home bunches of strongly scented flowers or tokens of jewelry from the five and dime. She felt as if they were dating again. She in high school, and he recently graduated. He no longer drove the lake-blue convertible, as they had traded it in for a more family-oriented car, but she still thought of him as her movie-star hero, the one who played sappy songs from his radio and slyly found ways to snake his arm around her waist.
This time did not last long, however, even as it occurred. Janet would cry often in her colicky voice, demanding attention of some sort: a diaper change, bottle, or soothing words. Just as Leda had figured out ways to calm Janet, to make her sleep a little longer or be more content after noisily finishing a bottle, that familiar nausea began to overtake her. Leda knew the stork had visited again. Her waist soon began to thicken and her breasts to swell.
However, those symptoms dissipated, with her waist shrinking and the doctor concerned for her health. Leda could not stop throwing up, could not keep anything down, not even Cream of Wheat. Pilar began to spend more time at the small home Walt and Leda were renting, and Walt began to spend less time there. Leda was forced to eat by her mother, but her stomach forced it back out again, the nourishment she could have had wasted down the drain.
After Diane emerged from her body and into this world, Leda did not regain her color or the healthy curve of her hips and fullness of her face. She continued to be sickly, unable to care for Janet or Diane. Pilar began sleeping at her house, sometimes bringing Raymond and Maria along as coworkers. Pilar spent her time caring for the two infants and forcing Leda to eat, while Leda’s younger siblings washed dishes and did the laundry.
Walt had long since not come home. He had taken a job in Eureka, hours north of their home. He sent money home to her, but did not come to see how his girls were doing. He rarely called, and when he did, Leda was sure she could hear a woman’s voice in the background. She brushed this aside, explaining to herself that it must be the television or radio in the background.
Walt did not know that Leda cried for him each night as she vomited her dinner and felt the milk in her bosom drying up. He did not know that instead of 2 percent milk, Leda needed money to buy half and half, as the doctor had ordered her to drink nothing with less fat content. Walt did not know that his first daughter had begun to walk, a mirror image of himself, with her blond hair and large blue eyes. He did not know that Diane, although small and weak when born, had begun to thrive in Pilar’s hands. Diane seemed a miniature version of Leda, her dark brown eyes large and curious, trusting her grandmother to care for her, just as Soledad had.
Leda remembers this as she turns Walt over in his bed, working to stave off bedsores. She loves her husband after all these years, but she remembers when that giddy, romantic love was not enough. Walt moans without much enthusiasm as she rolls him. She checks his diaper, realizing that there’s nothing to see because she had just changed him a few minutes before. She wants to sit on the edge of his hospital bed, a bed that resides in their once spacious and well-decorated family room, the one where all the grandchildren slept for that New Year’s Eve party not long ago. She wants to stroke his forehead, run her hands through his still thick, though gray, hair. She does not. The memory of her own sickness and their babies who were weaned and taught to walk from their grandmother instead of their well mother and devoted father clouds her thoughts.
She instead smoothes his sheets then walks briskly from the room, pretending she has somewhere to go, something to do. She heads for the laundry room, knowing she will find a pile of towels or underwear that needs attention. She shuts the dark, cherry wood door behind her. The filling of the washer drowns out her voice, wailing because she is unrested, unhappy, and unable to forgive.