The Frost on the September Leaves

The universe must have had a bone to chew with Ruth, because one morning, without warning, she had the misfortune of learning that the man she had loathed for over thirty years was undeserving of her contempt.

“I have to tell her the truth honey,” Sandra whispered to her husband.

It was forty-three minutes past the hour of 2 in the morning. No human in the Khumalo residence had any business being up at such an ungodly hour. As they would soon come to learn, there is always a price one has to pay for going against the laws of nature.

Ruth inched in closer to the kitchen door.  Her mother was sitting on a kitchen stool while her father stood a short distance away, his back resting against the fridge. Despite not hearing her name in her parent’s conversation, Ruth knew they were fighting about her. It was all they seemed to do since she announced her wedding date, three weeks ago. With only two days to I do, there were a lot of seemingly don’t-whisperings between her parents she desperately needed to get to the bottom of.

“You know how your daughter is,” Maseko said. “She will bar us from attending her wedding. Or worse, cancel the whole thing altogether!”

“I haven’t been able to sleep ever since she said those awful things to you,” Sandra said.

“I have been the subject of her hate for over thirty years honey. This isn’t the first time she’s said something so hurtful to me. There is no need to turn the tides at the eleventh hour. Let’s just honor her wishes and-”

“No!” Sandra said. “If there’s anyone between us that deserves to attend this wedding, it’s you and not me. I have no right whatsoever.”

“What do you mean you have no right?” Her husband said. “You are her mother for petes sake.

“She wouldn’t call me that if she knew the truth,” Sandra cried. “I can’t just sit back and pretend all is well after everything that’s been said and done. You are more of a parent to her than I will ever be. If she knew the truth, she wouldn’t have dared look you in the eye in such a manner and threaten to cancel her wedding if you are the one giving her away at the wedding. You have waited for this day all your life!”

Maseko took his wife’s hands. “Look at me,” he said. “I understand your concerns. However, remember that this is her big day. It’s supposed to be the happiest day of her life. For so many years she refused to get married because she couldn’t fathom the idea of me giving her away. How do you think I felt when the child I have done nothing but love as my own for over thirty years told me to my face that she was waiting for me to die so she could get married? She set aside her happiness because of me, but she has finally decided to settle down. I am not about to turn her life upside-down by telling her that the woman she has adored all these years is the same one that had abandoned her as a baby.”

Ruth put her hands over her mouth to stifle her shock, as her father’s words replayed themselves in her head. She must have moved or made a sound because her parents went quite for a few seconds before they appeared before her.

“Ruth?” Sandra’s eyes looked about ready to pop from their sockets. “Nooo…” She kept repeating. She didn’t need to ask how long her daughter had been eavesdropping. It was all written on her face, and in the teary eyes that were now shooting daggers at her.

“I want to know the truth,” Ruth said to her father, turning an oblivious eye to her mother. “What do you mean the woman who…the…is she….”

Sandra turned to her husband for help. She had not imagined this conversation unraveling in such a manner. No matter how much she had wanted her daughter to know the truth, she had hoped she would not be the one to bear such horrid truth to her.

“I think it’s best for me to leave you two to talk,” Maseko said and quickly disappeared before either of them could stop him.

Ruth glared at her mother.

“Ruth, can we-“

“My room,” Ruth said and led the way to her room. She didn’t want her brothers to hear about the secrets of her birth just yet.

Mrs Khumalo closed the door behind her and went to sit on the bed. Ruth had already made herself comfortable on the chair by her dresser.

“I never meant to lie to you,” Sandra said.

“Are you my biological mother?” Ruth asked.

Sandra nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“What about my father, who is he?”

“His name is Henry Mumba,” Sandra said. “I met him before I knew your dad. He disappeared when I told him that I was pregnant with you. I couldn’t blame him because I was also not ready to be a mother. I was studying to be a nurse. My mother, the late grandma Penny was very traditional and such a devout Catholic. She didn’t want to suffer the shame that came with having a pregnant unwed daughter. She sent me to your great grandma’s place in the village to stay till I delivered. When you were born, I left you with her and went back to school.”

“Wait,” Ruth said, waving her hand. “Dad came to get me from the village on my 10th birthday. I still remember the words grandma said to me that morning. ‘Your father is finally coming to get you so you can live with the rest of your siblings as a family.’ She made it sound as if dad was my biological father! She had never spoken to me about my parents no matter how much I asked, until that day.”

“I can explain,” Sandra said.

“All these years I thought great grandma Orriet was from dad’s side of the family,” Ruth said. “At first it was so confusing because I had never once seen him visit us, but I used to see you, on several occasions. You would bring us food, chat with me, and then leave after a few minutes. When I came to this house and saw how you welcomed me, I thought you did all that because you were paying your respects to your future husband’s family.

“I loved you so much and even went out of my way to please you in every possible way because I felt so indebted to you. I thought you were the most selfless woman in the world for accepting me the way you did. All these years I have hated dad with all of my heart for all the years he abandoned me in the village. I thought that you were the one that convinced him to bring me here! How could you do something like this?”

Ruth was up on her feet, pacing to and from while her mind replayed the brief moments she had shared with her mother as a child without knowing who the woman really was. Not once had she called addressed her as a mother ought to towards her daughter. How she had secretly prayed and hoped for the beautiful mysterious woman to ask her to come with her to the big city.

For years Ruth had yearned for the hugs that never came. She had tirelessly held on to a hope that proved more futile with each passing day. That was until the strange man she assumed was the man that abandoned her finally came for her. In a world full of strange faces, the familiar sight of Sandra smiling at her and opening her arms for the very first time to hug her was all the heaven Ruth could have ever hoped for. In her arms, she had finally found a place to call home.

How was she to know that the warmth she had felt in those arms was only a portion of the of hell that had for years been nestling behind the chest of the woman she had proudly called mother for so many years? How was she to calculate the value of the time, energy and love she had invested dotting on the devil that had thrown her into the pits of hell, mistaking her for the angel she had laboriously loathed and despised with such an unbridled passion?

It appeared, heaven was still a faraway dream for the lone orphaned girl in the darkened room.

“I was guilty,” Sandra sobbed. “I couldn’t bring myself to touch you, or even hold your hand when I visited you at grandma’s because I thought I was unworthy to be your mother.”

“Then why did you have dad bring me to this house? You should have left me there. Did you think that treating me like your little princess was going to erase all those years you abandoned me?” Ruth said. “You have stood by and watched me treat dad like scum. I have said the most horrible things to him that I…I….” her voice cracked under the overwhelming pressure of the shame and regret she was feeling towards her father.

Sandra got up and tried to put her arms around her daughter but Ruth pushed her so hard she fell back onto the bed.

“Don’t you dare touch me!” Ruth snapped.

Sandra pieced her broken pride together and sat up to face her daughter’s wrath head-on.

“I am so sorry Ruth,” she said. “You have every right to resent me. I wish I had a reason I could give you that could validate the decisions I made when I had you, but it would only be an excuse. I wanted to tell you the truth but your father insisted that I don’t. He said he didn’t mind taking the blame because you will always be his daughter no matter what.”

“And you let him?” Ruth asked. “Always selfish to the very end, aren’t you, mother?”

“I have always wanted to tell you the truth,” Sandra said.

“Then you should have!” Ruth yelled. “You had so many opportunities to do so, like the day I told dad I was would only get married after his death because I could not stand the idea of him acting like such a proud father giving me away in front of people.

“I have hated this man with every breath in my body and you did nothing to correct the situation. I spent all these years worshiping the ground you walk on because I thought you were such a saint. How can you live with yourself? How could you?”

“I am sorry.” It was all Sandra could say, over and over again.

She got down on her knees and begged for her daughter’s forgiveness.

“Let me ask you something,” Ruth said, looking down at her mother. “Why did dad act as if he was my biological father when he came to get me from the village? Was that the deal the two of you made?”

“Not really,” Sandra answered. “Things just somehow happened like that. Before I knew it, it was too late to correct.”

“What do you mean?”

“I never told your dad that I was a mother,” Sandra said. “I wanted to tell him so badly, but my mother had insisted that I keep the secret from him because he would change his mind about marrying me. I later learnt that grandma Orriet in the village had secretly contacted him and told him everything. She was very old so she was concerned about your future once she passed.

“Without informing me, he traveled all the way to the village and picked you up. I too was just as surprised to see you standing before me in the kitchen as you were. That was your father’s way of showing me that he had accepted everything about me. I was going to tell you the truth that day but before I could, you snapped at your dad at dinner when he tried to cut a piece of meat for you. You said you hated him for abandoning you and that I was the only reason you were staying.”

The whole time her mother was talking, Ruth was sobbing uncontrollably. When Sandra was finally done, Ruth stormed out of the room and ran towards her parent’s bedroom. She stopped at the door, her hand trembling as she reached for the doorknob.

She hesitated. She stepped back, but with trembling hands and feet, she moved towards the door again. She had finally made up her mind and was about to turn the knob when the door opened.

Her father was standing on the other side of it, smiling in his usual way. As Ruth looked up at the man she had hated with a passion all those years, she could not remember a day when she had seen him upset. Not even on those days when she lashed at him for being a dead-beat dad. So many times she had seen the same smile, oh how she had loathed the sight of it.

Despite it all, he had never apologized to her for abandoning her. He only smiled, as a dad would at a child saying the darndest things.

Here he was once again, still smiling at her, the same old smile, but this time around she saw it for what it really was; love. Ruth dropped down to her knees. She buried her head in her father’s legs, wrapping her arms tightly around them.

The world on her shoulders had never felt so light.

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