The burgundy door is propped open slightly. A birthday sash has been draped over the frame the number 20 written over to say 58. I shake my hand laughing no doubt Max bought the sash trying to make mum feel younger than she actually is.
I could hear the thumping of bass travel through the door, catching the muffled words of music.
"Carry on standing outside the party will be over before you step in." I sigh, my lips curling into a smile as I spin around.
The Samoan man chuckles tilting his head to me before opening his arms out to me. I skip into Max's arms, wrapping them tightly around his back.
"She never remembers to get ice." I laugh, pulling myself away and attempting to take a bag off Max, who dodges me and tilts his head to the door.
"Your mother never gets ice, she enjoys sending me out."
I pick up my small suitcase, letting Max lead the way into the house.
"We didn't expect you to come, I thought you said you'd be here in May for your birthday?"
"Yes," I place my suitcase by the door. "But, you know mum, and Kenny has his dance recital, doesn't he?"
Max heads past the living room to the sliding door at the back, and I am right on his tail.
"You guys still practising?"
"Every Saturday morning. I promised I would join him this time."
"Your mother got that boy to tap before he could walk."
"And would she have it any other way," I say, Max slides the door open, and the actual volume of the music hit my ears stretching them as wide as my smile.
Jesus, the Niko-Geoffries, are so loud.
The long garden is filled with various members of both families, a few cousins I hadn't seen since the Kenzo's 2nd birthday and some I hadn't seen since mum's wedding.
"Look who I found," Max announced, and all heads turn to me. The loudest of them all is a small brown boy, his caramel coloured haired darts between family members before racing towards me in a blur.
"Maisey!" he screams. I scoop him up twirling him around in my arms before planting the fattiest kiss I could muster on his tiny lips leaving a large brown kiss stain on his face.
"How are you, Kenny?" Kenzo wrapped his arms around my neck, squeezing me tight that I am just about able to breathe. I cough loudly bending my knees slightly like I am about to collapse.
"Must...breathe...Kenzo." I squeeze him back, nibbling into his neck, making him kick his legs in laughter.
"My daughter has returned." With Kenzo still in my arms, I turn to the familiar voice. Mum is heading out of the kitchen a stack of plates on her lap.
I put Kenzo down much to his reluctance and hug the 58-year-old. Her jasmine scent wafts up my nose, and I sigh contently. I kiss her cheek, trying not to get so tearful.
I probably didn't address the accident the way she did. I still struggle to see her in the chair. Could it be because I'm never here or am I just avoiding the pain that came with change?
Mum, however, adapted—as to be expected with someone so amazing. In her adjustment found Max, an honourably discharged army chef, and well the two couldn't have been better placed.
I always believed my father was her perfect match, Max reckoned that remnants of departed souls implant themselves on people who will make a difference to those they leave behind. He's convinced that a part of my father emanates from him and that in a different life Kenzo and I are the children that he never had.
"Happy birthday, mum." She stroked the side of my face, wiping the traitorous tear that had escaped. I stand up, grabbing the plastic plates off her lap before she can protest.
"As the birthday girl, relax mum." She rolls her eyes, taking herself to sit under the shade.
"Is that my nieta over there?"
"Abuelo." I watch the tall man weave through the crowd with arms wider than the ores of a boat. The sprinkle of moles across his face raise as he smiles his hazel eyes getting lost in his cheeks.
"You're looking more and more like your mother," he says as he hugs me.
"How long has it been?"
"Far too long, is Abuela here?" I feel his head move up and down.
"Cooking, something that probably could be left for another time. She's worse than your mother. The next time she sits will be when she dies." I make a face trying to stifle my amusement to his dark humour.
"Then I'm heading to the kitchen." I let him go, straightening out his striped collared shirt, before handing him the plates to set the table.
Abuela as always is dancing around the white-tiled kitchen, stirring pots and sprinkling season here and there.
"You micromanaging again." My voice makes the olive-skinned woman laugh.
"You know I like using your mum's kitchen when there are family events." She turns from the stove to address me.
I hoped at her age of 86, I had the same youthfulness— that surge of energy that seemed to hit anything in proximity. Her hair is still thick and voluptuous by her collar bone grey with strands of black decorating it. Peurto Rican blood that my grandfather fell in love with instantly a single father with a newborn Abuela Joan took my mother, and she became her own.
My mum looks great for 58, and Abuela Joan looks ethereal at 86. She kisses both of my cheeks before returning to her work.
"You don't call enough, Mae," she says unprompted. I lean on the countertop plucking olives from out a small bowl.
"Time zones are tricky to manage, I try my best Abuela." I reach for another olive, a ladle comes down, hitting the back of my hand. I hold my hand to my chest, rubbing it.
"Your mother worries for you, in America on your own. Never telling her what you get up to." I sigh loudly pushing up off the table.
"Abuela, I'm a designer. You know this, luckily a high-end one. America is where it's at, it's bigger, and so is the market. I tell mum this every time. The UK is still my home, and I come back whenever I can."
Abuela Joan had been watching me, studying my choice of words as they came out of my lips. She purses her own, watching me a bit longer until she is satisfied and turns back to the stove.
"Go take the food out before you eat it all." I smile, I had passed her test. I take the bowl of olives in one hand and salad in the other, just before I leave I plant a kiss on her cheek.
"Of course, Abuela."
We all sit at the three tables in the garden under the shade of several large umbrellas. Mum is at the head of the table.
Abuelo raises from his seat on the other end of table number one, he angles himself so he could be seen by everyone.
"Dear God," he begins, everyone dips their heads, some holding hands, others with clasped hands in front of them. "We thank you for blessing Daniele with another year. We know she has been through tough times, but we know you only give us as much as we can bear. I thank you for the food we are about to receive, the hands that made them, and the people who have come to enjoy it. Let the people say."
"Amen," we reply in unison. I look to Max and mouth the words 'ai' who in turn does it back to me. With our plates out and everyone hungry, we dug in.
"Kenny," I say, grabbing the little boy's attention, he has one hand wrapped around a spoonful of rice and another hand around a drumstick.
Nonetheless, the little boy can speak, "yeth." A few grains of rice slip out of his mouth.
"Dance recital tomorrow. Excited?" Kenzo opened his mouth to speak, but with a mouth full of chicken and rice, he closed it, settling to just nodding frantically.
"Are you talking about the dance recital tomorrow Mae?" mum asks, "do you plan to join as well."
"Finally, yes. I just hope my partner is as good as his."
Kenzo is part of a contemporary party that my mum had begun consulting for. Once a year they have a family performance. I skip it most years and Kenzo has to settle for an extremely rigid and stiff Max, but tomorrow I would dance with him for the first time, with a partner who should be able to lift me elegantly.
I just wonder if I can still hold my form.
It is like I had never left, the laughter, the jokes of past Christmases and family gatherings is everything to make my heart warm. I've forgotten how much I miss them, how much I miss the family unit that love and emotion that swept the floor and everyone around it. Most importantly, I forgot how much I miss being me, around people who know me. Know Mae.
I sigh contently as I lean back into the white plastic chair. The sun has begun its descent, and with the orange and red hues playing across the garden, a low glow emits from the kitchen.
"Happy birthday, to you," Abuela Joan begins, I turn slightly to the cake that was being brought out into the garden and join everyone in with the singing.
Mum tries her best not to look embarrassed all this attention orbiting around made her smile sheepishly as Max stands behind her rubbing her shoulders.
The cake is placed in front of her the number '20' having two small fires emanating from it only made my mum smile wider. Max kisses the top of her head, and she, in turn, kissed his hand.
With the song coming to an end, mum clears her throat.
"Thank you all for coming, I told Max I wanted something quiet this year. 58 is not such a big deal."
"Well, for your 60th we're renting a hotel," Max counters, we all laugh, but the man is most likely serious. He'd work out something, with his charm and unwavering love for my mother he'd get something done.
"I wouldn't want to spend this birthday with anyone else," she finishes. We all raised our glasses.
"To mum," I shout.
"To Daniele," everyone replies before clinking glasses and cheering as she blew the candles out.
A.N. we finally meet the Nikos, we saw them briefly on Christmas day. Let me know what you guys think, and most importantly, thanks for reading. Y'all are amazing!