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Chapter 57: That New Baby Smell

The house was empty; even Fannett had gone out prowling. I liked the quiet, but I also liked it just as well when the house was full of giggles and shy looks were exchanged among the three confederates. I was wondering where they were when I heard a soft knocking at the door. I opened it to see Moam-Moam with a woman I had not met before. “Momma,” Moam-Moam said, looking down at the floor. “Khium madai,” she continued, introducing her mother.

In her mid-to-late forties, the woman was dark-skinned and small, shabbily dressed in a dirty cotton sarong and sleeveless blouse. She was of classic Cambodian ethnicity, with no hint of Chinese blood in her features. Beaten down by poverty and life, she smiled, showing a gold tooth cap that glittered in her mouth. Without forewarning, she said, “Moam-Moam make you happy in America. She is good girl and like you much.” No hinting, no coyness. She wanted me to take Moam-Moam to the States, raise her as my daughter and make her a “gold bar child.” That’s what the locals called the lucky ones who escaped Cambodia’s unrelenting poverty.

“No more school for Moam-Moam, klai nah,” the woman said, as if the expense of school was justification for her request. There was no shame in it, as it was a hope born of desperation.

A heavy silence descended, almost squeezing the air out of the room. I stood there, thinking. She stared down at her bare feet.

I adored Moam-Moam, who represented everything that was innocent and beautiful about Cambodia. I had plenty of resources at home in the States, a comfy house and no grandchildren to compete for my attention. Life had felt empty, and the lack of someone or something to give me a reason to climb out of bed had resulted in a sinking depression. Moam-Moam could provide that reason. No, I thought, as I struggled with the idea of adopting her. Who does stuff like that when she’s almost fifty? And I couldn’t begin to imagine the bureaucratic nightmare that would ensue if I tried to pull it off.

“Moam-Moam saa-at.” I told the woman that her daughter was beautiful. In expectation, she raised her eyes to meet mine. “Nevertheless,” I said, shaking my head to indicate ‘no,’ “I cannot take her to America.” I noted, with some disappointment, a flicker of relief crossing Moam-Moam’s face. Her mother’s face betrayed nothing. She put her hands together in a formal thank-you gesture, bowed and left the house with Moam-Moam following in her wake.

I stood in the doorway, watching them walk across the road to the small wooden shack where they lived. Moam-Moam turned and glanced once in my direction, her expression unreadable, then hurried to catch up with her mother. I let out a deep sigh as a pang of regret crept deep down into the pit of my stomach.

Sitting on a chair as dusky shadows darkened the room, old memories haunted my thoughts. I saw my daughter as an infant, then a carefree toddler, playing. After that my memory bank emptied until she was grown—her childhood obliterated by suburban routine, then my years in graduate school, followed by my university teaching job. I know that we did all the expected things. I was a soccer mom—in this case, field hockey—and took her to tap and jazz lessons. We shared microwave meals in front of the TV. But as my husband and I had less and less in common, Sara was left more and more to her own devices.

Then I imagined Moam-Moam, giving me a second chance at motherhood, in a safe and stable home far away from the absolute poverty that was her destiny in Skon.

Only days later, a villager with a newborn baby boy in her arms arrived at our office. Assuming she was there to register to vote, I began my ritual welcome speech. “Sohmswaakohm,” I said, handing her a registration card. She shook her head and held out the baby as she said something in Khmae.

“She found the baby,” explained Nhean, who happened to be standing nearby. “She is bringing the infant here because Untac is in charge.”

In charge of abandoned babies? I immediately radioed the UN human rights officer for help. “Stand by,” was his reply. I sent one of the staff to the market to buy some baby clothes, milk and a baby bottle.

The woman began speaking again. Nhean only understood that she was thankful for our help and wanted to learn how to burp the tiny boy. I had the baby up high on my shoulder, rubbing his little back and inhaling his baby scent, when we received word that the UN had no orphanage facilities.

With the woman and the baby in tow, one of the CivPol drove Nhean and me to see the district chief to find out how to handle adoption proceedings. The woman told her story again, this time elaborating her purpose. I listened mutely as Nhean translated for me. She didn’t want to give us the baby; she’d found him and intended to adopt the child herself. The chief gave her five thousand riels, about two dollars and fifty cents, and sent us to the local clinic to have the baby checked.

The clinic’s doctor estimated that Samnang was fifteen days old and pronounced the baby—we named him Lucky—healthy. Presumably the mother, poor and likely single, had purposely placed the baby where someone would find him. It wasn’t unusual for families to take in abandoned babies or children orphaned by the Khmer Rouge and raise them as their own.

The CivPol seemed quite distressed over the whole process. “This seems really shoddy,” he complained. “Who checks on this woman’s credentials?”

The process was indeed quite informal and pragmatic. The mother didn’t want or couldn’t keep the infant; this woman could. Nothing else was required to hand over the child.

“This is good end Momma, yes?” Nhean said.

“Yes, it ended well.”

“Then why do you not look so pleased?” he asked.

“I am relieved. It’s only that I can’t help feeling that something I wanted was taken away; the baby felt good and sweet in my arms.” Nhean didn’t say anything, but he didn’t look confused. He patted my arm and smiled until his eyes disappeared—like Kosal’s used to disappear.

Silly radio chatter about CJ having a baby finally died down. I stacked paperwork haphazardly on my desk, watched absentmindedly as my pencil rolled across the floor and decided it was time to go home. As I crossed the road to the house, I saw Hoay and Keang playing in the middle of it. They ran over, smiling and giggling, and each girl took one of my hands. “Cho-co-late?” I asked them, smiling back.

Cha, cha, aw kuhn,” they sang out. We went upstairs, still holding hands, to find Brielle’s stash of candy bars.

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