There is nothing so divine in the world as monkey bread. It is a mound of warm buttery dough with a gooey texture that melts and coats the inside of your mouth as cinnamon sugar melts into a syrup on your tongue. The caramelized crust crunches under your teeth and your head spins with the sensation of such confectionary delight. You lick your fingers and pat your full greasy belly, and wonder how the earth produces wheat, sugarcane, cinnamon twigs, and cows to milk, and milk to butter. You wonder how there are such good things in the world.
When I was eight years old, we lived down the street from Mama Michelle. She was a fierce, kind, principled woman, lean and tall with long brown hair, and a mother of five. She also owned a pool in her backyard. So we went over to her house for a swim whenever the sun was too strong, which it often was in Florida. My brother and I played with her children in the water until our eyes shrivelled up like dates and our arms felt tight and tired.
I remember on one or two occasions we all were playing in the pool, maybe six or seven neighborhood kids in total, and Mama Michelle walked out onto the patio holding a giant watermelon. She stood over the pool and dropped the watermelon in the pool. We stopped whatever game we were playing and all raced for the watermelon, fighting over it in the water until we could barely move anymore. Then Mama Michelle came back outside, took the watermelon from us, and chopped it into thick cold slices that we would eat and let drip down our chins.
Then we would play in the yard until the bottoms of our feet were red, raw, and full of splinters. I remember the chalky dirt that coated my calves and elbows. I remember it getting caked under my finger nails and wedged in the cuticles.
At some point, Mama Michelle’s husband and son built a treehouse, a rickety thing without walls, planks of wood hammered into the branches high above a sloping dirt mound on the side of the house. It was terrifying sitting up there with my feet dangling and nothing but weak branches to hold for balance. It always sent a gust of wind through my nervous tummy. One of the girls always teased me for my fear of heights, but I enjoyed the thrill of being nervous so I would sit up there no matter how much fear I betrayed.
There was a huge bin of tin picnic dishes in the yard that were used for playing. The girls and I would hunch over the fire pit and bury ourselves in the tedious work of pressing mud into the dishes. This was for the boys to eat when they got home from hunting in the little patch of trees. We had to keep a close watch on the younger children to make sure they didn’t wander off. I usually liked to be one of the older daughters – I didn’t like being the mother because that meant I had to have a husband. It didn’t really matter though, because the boys spent most of their time making bows and sharpening sticks for arrows anyway.
But oh, we were pioneers. Every child is an artist, and Mama Michelle’s backyard was our canvas. For us the games we played were living organisms, stories that rang with truth and with dreams. We basked in the glory of the earth, letting the sun crisp up our skin and the damp air curl our hair. We were hunters, mothers, sisters, husbands, orphans, fairies, warriors, schoolteachers, foragers, indigenous, and free.
And then Mama Michelle would step outside holding a platter of monkey bread, and she would call out to us, and the smell of butter and cinnamon sugar would fill our little noses, and we would become children again. Our feet slapped the watery concrete as we scrambled out of the pool, picked across the dirt yard as we dropped out of the trees, bounded across the grass. And we descended upon the platter like lions upon an antelope, tearing off pieces of the sticky bread with our bare unwashed hands, snapping out of our imaginations for one brief moment. For a few minutes we ate like ravenous animals while the hard-working mother watched us with a chuckle. Then we’d wipe our mouths with our buttery hands and smile at each other’s round sunkissed faces. “Thank you, Mama Michelle,” we made sure to say before rushing back to our play. We were adventurous but safe. It never occurred to me that not every child has the privilege of such rigid investment in their upbringing. It never occurred to me that many women forfeit their power to build the small women, the ones who still play with dolls. I wonder what kinds of girls we would have become if we hadn’t been allowed to climb trees and play with dirt and wrestle for a watermelon with our brothers. I wonder what kinds of girls we would have become if we hadn’t made mud pies over the lifeless fire pit and collected poisonous berries from the shrubs and taught school to the toddlers. I wonder what we would have become if the women who gave us life hadn’t decided to set store by the children coming up after them. Empowerment begins with wet stringy hair, tin picnic dishes, bare feet full of splinters, sun-drained skin, toy bows and arrows, and of course, a mouthful of butter and sugar.