The obituary read:
“Mary Elanor Abigail Thomas, the Fourth, beloved daughter, sister, and mother passed away peacefully at her home in town earlier this week.
She was surrounded by family including her daughter Mary Elanor Abigail Thomas, the Fifth, and many aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins. Attendees noted that ‘Mary met the eyes of everyone there, before closing her own and going to live in heaven with our Lord.’ The family said services will be private.”
Mary Elanor Abigail Thomas and her family history was never discussed in detail. How could a clan discuss something it didn’t know much about? What was known: Their matriarch, Mary Thomas the First gave birth to her first child in 1932, at the somewhat overripe age of 20 and had named her Mary the Second. There is never any mention of a father. This trend continued throughout the generations. Mary the Second would have her first child, a girl, at age 20 and name her Mary the Third. No father listed. Immaculate conception or family curse? Descendants, male and female alike debated to no avail.
Whether Mary the First was born in the outskirts of town, or washed ashore with the waves of people seeking work during those years was also disputed. The only surviving photo shows her as tall, taller than the men around her, with the same dark skin and black hair, thick and gathered into a bun. Her eyes were dark as well, neither predominately Western nor predominately Eastern in shape. Short nails, high cheekbones and, in the photo, an unremarkable outfit that did not entirely disguise her generous hips and full breasts. She wore no ring. The photo was undated and unsigned. No one knew where it came from, but everyone knew where it was. Mary’s Chili and Rice was a local institution, and that one photo, digitized and blown up in the modern age, hung just above the cash register.
Mary the First began selling small tins of rice, beans, and meat as soon as her firstborn was old enough and strong enough to be bound to her back. Hiking the baby girl up, she walked through the town with a basket of tins at lunchtime, and again at dinner. Her first customers bought the small tins out of pity, older women whispering amongst themselves. “Young girl, small baby, no father, no family… what’s a few cents, even if we don’t like it?”
One of the older women did not feed the chili to the dog as soon as she returned home, as they all usually did. Instead, she scooped a spoonful into her mouth, right there on the street. What spread over her tongue was unlike anything she’d ever tasted or made herself. It was amazing. She cornered Mary the First. “That chili you make is the best I’ve ever tasted. What’s your secret?” “No secret,” replied Mary. “I cook with love.”
In time, Mary the First was able to open a roadside stand, and later a small diner, Mary’s Chili and Rice. Her menu and family grew. In addition to the chili, ever simmering in a large cast-iron pot, she offered roasted corn and sweet potatoes, stews, and even sweets. A produce man began to spend a lot of time around the diner and eventually Mary began wearing a ring. Their children followed soon after, more girls and a boy.
Mary’s Chili and Rice ran a homegoing special the week after the passing of Mary the Fourth. “Chili and Rice Plate, $4.00 all day. Original Recipe Passed Down From Mary the First.”
Mary the Fifth could not work her usual 60 hours in the restaurant that week, as she was twenty years old and ripe with her first child, a girl. She went in early for an hour or two in the mornings to prepare and open, and later received the deposits from her cousin after closing. Each time hauling herself to her feet and navigating the empty soda cans and dirty plates that littered the floor around her boyfriend. At night, his video game washed the dark living room in pale gray.
On the Friday after the passing of her mother, Mary the Fifth received her inheritance. The restaurant, of course, would be hers but there was something else. Something the estate lawyer did not mention in the reading, instead pulling her aside in the hall. Ostensibly, he was asking about the baby and her health. He cradled her elbow with one hand and leaned forward, smiling as one does with pregnant women. In a low and measured voice he said, “Mary the Fifth, this is the family recipe for your chili. It is not to be shared with anyone besides your first daughter, and only upon the event of your demise. Follow the instructions to the letter. No substitutions. If you do not do as instructed, the business will fail and your line will end in ruin.” Mary closed her puffy fingers around the small square of paper. With a quick handshake he loudly exclaimed, “Oh so beautiful and what a blessing, all the best to you with the upcoming birth, can’t wait to see pictures!” before briskly walking away.
Mary Elanor Abigail Thomas, the Sixth, was born the next day at 5am, weighing 8lbs, 9oz. There was no father listed on the birth certificate, and in fact, it seemed like the guy had skipped town altogether. Cold feet, the rumor went.
When the baby was strong enough, Mary the Fifth hiked her onto her back and returned to the restaurant full time. She stirred the large vat of their signature chili, recently topped off, and smiled up at the portrait above the register.