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The Keeping Place

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Written for Zulu for Yuletide 2009

The Keeping Place

The house is a cacophony around Tami. She opens the oven (again) to check on the ham. In the time that it takes, the potatoes threaten to boil over. It is hot in the kitchen and she brushes back a strand of hair that's fallen into her eyes. Her fingers leave a steamy trail along her skin, and a moment later the hair has fallen back into her eyes.

"Mamamamamama," Gracie Belle coos from her high chair.

"Mamamamamama," Tami echoes back, her heart lightened as she leans in close to blow the sounds against that precious, soft baby skin.

"She's never going to learn anything if you talk baby talk to her all the time." Julie's got her hair in little girl braids. The show off the ridiculous diamond studs in her ears that her father insisted on buying for her.

("She'll just lose one," Tami said at the jewelry counter.

"Now, she's a young woman now," Eric told her, that adorable half-frown on his face. "She can be responsible. We have to give her the chance to rise to the challenge."

Tami gave him that doubtful look that said all right, but it's your loss. But Eric wrapped his arms around her and said, "I just want to get something pretty for all my girls." And how could she resist?)

She doesn't feel much like a girl now, looking at her great big grown-up daughter sling her getting-so-big-every-day baby daughter onto her hip. "I'm going to read you a real story," Julie says to Gracie Belle, who grabs a braid in her first, utterly enchanted.

Tami has to look away because her eyes turn hot and fill. One of these days it's not going to be Gracie that Julie's holding. One of these days it's going to be a baby of her own.

("She's beautiful, honey," she says, stroking Julie's hair. She kisses her on the head, an impulse, but also looking to see if any of that sweet baby smell is left. No, it's gone now that's she's seen her daughter go through so much pain in the effort to bring a new person into this world. Her grandbaby. "You did so good.")

Julie sits down on the couch with her baby sister and softly begins to read an article from In Style, something about shoes.

(Snuggled up in Eric's arms, watching the sun set. A plaintive country wail coming softly from the cassette deck. Just the two of them back then, living in a crappy apartment. It didn't matter because they filled it up with love.)

She drains the potatoes and digs around for the masher. It only gets used once or twice a year, but it should still be handy from Thanksgiving.

The scene on the television changes, music traded for the excited overtones of an announcer. Where a long-haired girl in sparkles danced, now burly guys in tight pants crash into each other, fighting for the ball.

"Dad! I was watching that!"

"You're reading."

"I can read and watch at the same time. Turn it back."

"It's football, honey." All the explanation he needs in this house. Eric settles in on the couch, eyes on the game. In a whole different world than the rest of them, except for the hand he puts out for the baby to play with. Gracie loves her sister and looks at her like she's the prettiest girl in the whole world, but that can't compare a bit with her love for Daddy.

Tami smiles, because Julie was the exact same way.

("It's just because you're gone all day and I'm here." She was so tired back then.

"Naw, she loves me special. She's my girl. Isn't that right, Jules? Isn't that right?" He tickles her and she squeals, high-pitched and happy. He takes his hand away and she waits breathlessly for him to do it again. She knows he will. And she squeals again.

It doesn't even matter, the stab of jealousy she feels, because this is love and it's big enough for the three of them.)

She sticks the meat thermometer into the ham. Just about done. She scans the kitchen, trying to think what she might have missed, what she might be forgetting.

Ten minutes, maybe fifteen. She pours a glass of wine and crosses the boundary from the kitchen. Sits on the arm of the couch, legs crossed, leaning against her husband.

"Dinner almost ready, babe?"

"Soon." His shoulder is hard against hers. The wine is good.

"How come I don't get any of that?"

"Cause you're watching the game and I'm working my ass off in the kitchen?"

"Mom!" Julie gasps, but she is already grinning.

Eric slides his arm around her waist. They all watch the play together. The guys running, the clock ticking down. This is the fifth member of her family. The not-so-silent minority. Football gave them this house, this town. It puts food on their table. Diamond earrings in her daughter's ears.

Like a family member, they've had their disagreements with it over the years. It pulled Eric away from her when she needed him most. She's lost count the number of times she hurried home after the game to pull another "for sale" sign out of their lawn before he saw it, before he got mad about that on top of the lost victory. He's a good coach. Loves his game and his boys. It hasn't always been easy, but she wouldn't trade it for anything.

Tight Pants tosses one into the end zone. Touchdown. Victory dance.

(One day it'll be one of Eric's boys in the NFL, doing that dance. She'll be in the stands, just like on so many Friday nights before. It'll be cold, but the excitement keeps her warm. Eric will be beside her, rather than on the sidelines. The professional stadium is nicer, the team stronger, but somehow it's just not the same. She misses the watered-down Coke, awkward teen girls doing their cheers, the hard seats and the smell that makes it home.)

She rises reluctantly, her duties calling. She doesn't say anything, but Eric zaps the TV off. He picks up the baby, zooming her high and low on the way to her high chair. Julie grabs the dishes from the counter and delivers them to the table. Her family mobilized, then waiting for her. Looking in her direction expectantly. It would be the same even if she didn't have a platter in her hands.

There is love in this family, in this home. That's all she's ever wanted.