I've been pondering which is more effective when writing, present or past tense. So I tried a little exercise and wrote something in both. I think present is much more powerful for a reader. Putting them right there in the scene. What do you think?
Battle of the Tenses
When I said “Mama” for the first time—to the second “mama”
Part One: Present Tense
I slowly squinted my eyes open to the muted giggles of my 2-year-old sister. The hushed voice of the woman I’m supposed to call “mama” stings my ears as I listen to her tease and play with my sister.
I tightly close my eyes again and roll over on my stomach shoving my head under the pillow. The sheets and pillows have an unfamiliar smell. They’re not mine. Not really.
My sister and I have only been here since last “cartoon-day”. That was at gramma’s. Before bed last night the woman had said that tomorrow is Saturday. That’s the other name for it so that means that today is “cartoon-day”.
I miss my doll, Mrs. Beasley. Since mama had given her to me I’ve never slept without her. My stomach rumbles and bubbles. I guess I need to eat. I don’t want to, though.
I reluctantly pad to the doorway that leads to the kitchen dining-room. The man I’m supposed to call “daddy” is at work even though it’s “cartoon-day”. I suck in my bottom lip and try to make my feet step as softly as possible.
Heel, roll, toe. Heel, roll, toe.
I feel the cool, hard-wood floor beneath my 5-year-old feet. I don’t want her to hear me. I lean against the hard-polished door-jam hiding most of my body and head. I mash my face close to the wood and realize I’ve been holding my breath. I feel my warm breath on my cheeks as I try to breathe as slowly and quietly as possible. Ever so slowly I ease my head around the jam just enough to peek one eye out.
The woman is smiling and helping Tonya eat a bowl of “lucky Charms”. The woman laughs as milk dribbles down Tonya’s chin. She glances at me. Her radiant smile is immediately washed away and replaced with – what? Annoyance? Anger? I don’t know. I just know she doesn’t like me.
She sighs and says, “Well what do you want?” Her words bite at me.
I look at my toes peeking out from the new, yellow-flannel nightgown the man called “daddy” had given me.
“Can I have some too?”
The woman leans her elbows heavily on the white-Formica table. There is a cruel twist to her lips.
“Listen. I don’t have to feed you. Only “mama’s” fix breakfast for their children.”
I pinch my bottom lip with a forefinger and thumb really hard. It hurts but that’s okay. I do that quite a bit these last few days.
Between pinched bottom-lip and fingers I mumble, “But mama’s not here.”
I flinch as she stands and slams both palms hard on the table. The sound vibrated through my mind like the aftershock of slammed door.
Through tight lips she says, “Your daddy said that until you can call me ‘mama’ I don’t have to feed you. Go away, you’re not my problem.”
I painfully swallow the rock in my throat. A blend of anger and hurt burns my eyes. I won’t cry. I won’t call her “mama”.
But I do. Two days later when the tightness and cramps of my empty, traitorous stomach gets the better of me.
Part Two: Past Tense
I don’t remember many of my first days with my dad and step-mother. But I do remember clearly the first time I called my step-mother, “mama”. I was a thorn in Celeste’s side, reminding her that the little world she was trying to create was not the happily-ever-after fairy tale that she wanted it to be. And the fact that I refused to call her “mama” just made it worse. After getting tired of her constant complaints about this, and about me, my dad finally told her to just not feed me ‘till I called her “mama”.
I woke up one morning to she and my sister Tonya eating a breakfast of ‘Lucky Charms’. I can’t stand that cereal now, and for years I even avoided looking at it in the grocery store.
That morning she informed me that only “mama’s” fix breakfast for their children, and since she wasn’t my “mama” she didn’t have to feed me.
It wasn’t until two days later when I couldn’t stand the cramping in my stomach that I mumbled, “Can I have some food? Mama.”
She then gave me a victorious smile and said, “There! Was that so hard ?”
Yes. Yes, it was.