This is the latching on.
You are shelter and source, and this is the smell of only you. The hands that hold and lift and swaddle, the mouth that smiles and sings me, the eyes that look me into being: yours. This is the skin to skin. I cry to make the hungry stop and you come. This is the We.
Up above, bears lullaby in a circle, and I see the dust-mote lightstream, the cribcage stripes of legs and arms, the faces that whisper and soothe. Your hands lift and wipe and bring the dry.
This is the bounce and carry, when you show and tell me all the things. The walls of books and people, the colors, the window. See the trees and sidewalks and buildings? See the people coming and going, down below? And that’s the door that opens and closes, taking him away and bringing him back.
Here is how I say goodnight. Table. Chair. Moon. Mama. And go to sleep by my only.
This is how to hold my spoon, how to do it for myself. Try. Try harder. Try again.
Peek-a-boo, I see you. And I see Daddy, over there with his big paper. He comes to lift and tickle and pretty-girl me. He takes us on a Sunday drive and does the grass and the snow. There’s Daddy, who mostly goes.
I crawl, cruise, stand and fall, stand and fall, careful, balance, try again. Now I’m upright. Walking. Free.
But these are your Nos: That is hot. That will make you sick. It will hurt you. You will hurt it. No, you may not have it. No, you have had enough. It does not belong to you. It is not your turn. No. Because I said so, that’s why.
This is your happy. Your proud. Your worried. This is your frown that makes my middle tumble and quease.
I’ve got one pink sock, and another, and that makes two, and two is more.
These are my stacking toys and my puzzles. Here’s my Deluxe Dream Kitchen, where I can do all the Mama things you do. This is how to use the oven and wash dishes. These are my dolls, and this is how to love the ones with the long, yellow hair for combing and braiding, and how to put aside the one that looks like me.
Look, don’t touch these things. Don’t touch yourself down there. Don’t even look.
Here’s how I put my socks on by myself, brush my teeth, keep myself pretty and neat.
Saturday mornings are for hair-washing. Dennis the Menace and Captain Kangaroo on the TV, and me on the floor between your knees for the combing and spraying and oiling and pulling, pulling, pulling. So many tangles, so much unruly, so much taming to be done.
Sundays are for driving, and church, and if you’re Daddy, sometimes they’re for fishing. He loves his fish, but hardly ever goes. I sit with him on the back porch while he does his tying. This is a snell knot, he says. This is a clinch knot. And this is a blood knot. It’s hard to make, but it’s tried and true. It holds.
This is how I say Please and Thank You and Yes, Sir and Yes, Ma’am.
This is school, and these are my brand-new saddle shoes and my stiff plaid dress and my hair that’s plaited so tight my scalp hums. This is my lunchbox and my book bag and our address and phone number, in case. This is how I wave goodbye and watch you disappear. And cry until Miss Jenkins takes my hand and shows me the dolls and their cradles, and I keep on looking for you in the doorway, playing and then looking, and then pretending and forgetting, and then at circle time I remember and look for you again, and I hear you on my inside: Mama loves you, yes she does, and always will.
This is the alphabet. This is how I write my name: charlotte, after my grandma, and that’s a lot of letters, with only two that’s the same, and that’s T. And here’s how to sound words out, how to crack the code. Read, read, read. This is how the world gets bigger.
Here’s one thing I know for sure: I must learn from my mistakes (and make as few as possible).
I tie my shoes, but the laces come aloose. I hold the loop with one hand (Right? Left? Which is which?) and tie it in another, extra knot.
You come from the bathroom, a queen in your towel crown, and then you take it off and comb-straighten-curl to make your hair behave, and I watch you put on your lipstick (not too red), your rouge, your mascara and foundation (lighter than your skin). I see you pretty: shaved and girdled and smoothed. And at night you come back to your Ponds cold cream smell and your squishy pink curlers, taking off the makeup, and you’re my plain Mama again.
This is how to tell time. Big hand, little hand, round and round. Come on, come on, let’s go already, you say. If I’m the type who’s late, it will hold me back.
This is how to get an A.
Here’s the way to look up a word in the dictionary so I can spell and say it right. This is the table of contents, and index at the back. And two-digit addition and subtraction are done like this. Carry and borrow. Make sure to keep my columns straight. Science? Boys are good at that.
Who’s in my homeroom? I’m friends with Sarah and Rachel and Ben, who sit in my row. I know the others’ names, but they do not know me. I’m the only one who’s brown. The people inside the houses on our block say “Good morning” and “Good afternoon,” but that’s it, and they never sit on the porch and talk and laugh, like where we used to live. And our house is small, but it’s pretty with Mama’s petunia border and window boxes out front, and Daddy keeps the grass perfect and the edges clean. We used to be the only ones, but people are moving out and more like us keep coming.
I learn that some people have lots of money, but most don’t. And we’re in between, but much closer to the don’t end. That’s a birthday party with a clown and a magician. That’s a vacation in The Islands, a ski trip, a house on Martha’s Vineyard. A three-car garage, a dishwasher, an in-ground pool. That’s a gardener, and that’s someone who’s not your mama who drives you places, someone to make your dinner, wash and iron, and pick up after you. Our house is nice and clean isn’t it? You’ve got a roof over your head, don’t you? Have you ever been hungry? Here’s how to ask what people had to do to get that money: Did it come from stepping on, from cheating on, from someone else’s sweat? Did it come way back, from owning people? Owning PEOPLE?
We are upright and hardworking. We do not give up. Your great-grandfather got free. His children got north. Their children got to college. From him to whom much is given, much is expected. We do not forget. Push forward. Uplift. Make us proud.
Here are the places in books where anyone can go for free.
I wait my turn and never push. I put my napkin in my lap and use the right fork and make polite conversation. I write my thank you notes. I know how to act like a young lady, like I’ve got the sense I was born with, like I’ve been raised right.
After school you walk me to the library where you work mornings, and after that we go home for snacks and homework and rest. Daddy, mostly-absent-ever-returning-hero, comes home with ice cream and candy bars and apologies that he is always working, working, working, taking off his tie as soon as he comes through the door, getting a brown drink from the high-up corner cabinet. Sometimes he goes, even when he stays.
You are the here and now, with your busy hands. The lunch-packer, the dinner-maker, the homework-helper, the errand-runner, the cleaner, comforter, confidante.
This is a family. This is who and how we love.
We pray like this: Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father… Let us humbly confess our sins unto Almighty God…
This is how to write cursive, and work on my penmanship. And this is how to raise my hand and answer (without speaking out of turn) so the teacher knows I’m smart, because here’s what I know for sure: You must do better, you must be better, just to be thought as good.
Here is the razor cut of the word nigger. And here’s how honky tastes inside my mouth.
Do unto others. Do not judge by color or creed. We are all children of God. But don’t be surprised when you are excluded, ignored, or mistreated. Try to walk above it. But be ready to run. And fight.
This is how to get an A.
This is how to speak correctly. This is how to blur away the stiletto throb when the kids next door say: “You talk white.”
Here’s how we plan dinner and thaw something from the freezer when we wake up. We clean the collards and mustards and season them like this. We cook them down, so the pot liquor’s good and rich. We smother the pork chops in gravy, use a brown paper bag to shake the chicken pieces, coating them with the flour and seasonings. And we bake the ham in a paper bag so it will hold the juicy goodness in.
We set the table for Sunday dinner and we clear it, while the menfolk push back their chairs, yawn and rise and walk away. We say nothing. We keep things nice.
This is how to wash dishes and counters and toilets and floors and clothes.
I tend to myself, urged by your voice and your forehead frown: Scrub behind your ears. Scrub under here and down there (but no lingering, no touching), and make sure you never smell, especially at that time of the month, when a girl must be especially attentive to this. Here’s how to put on a Kotex, with this belt. Tampons, they’re not for virgins. Wear deodorant. Wear a perfume that’s light and tasteful. Whatever your clothes, make sure they are clean and ironed and matching and neat. People will judge you by these things. This is how to examine our faces in the mirror and dislike what all we see: Nose too wide, eyes too tight, cheeks too fat, thighs belly butt arms, all too fat, too fat. Smooth that hair back and confine it. Keep it set and curled and straight and smooth. Especially the edges, make sure not to forget the edges.
I remind myself that brand names and price tags are not what matters, but get a job after school bagging groceries, even so. And I learn to pin and cut a pattern, sew a straight seam, put in a zipper, make a buttonhole, so that I can always make my way. You insist that I learn to embroider, as proper ladies have: Pull the fabric tight and secure it with the hoop; do a satin stitch, stem stitch, chain stitch, neat and even; make a French knot. And I learn to knit and purl: Start by tying a slip knot and casting on. Pull one side and it will come apart. It is not a forever knot.
Show your intelligence and upbringing. Use your vocabulary. Carry yourself with dignity, and show that you are not an animal, even if they treat you as such. Defy their expectations, make us proud, reach high.
I learn that Latin disciplines the mind, and you help me conjugate: amo, amas, amat, amamus…I love, you love, he loves, we love…
Keep on getting these good grades, and you’ll have the choices we didn’t have.
I know how to be smart, but talk softly. How to push forward without being pushy. And this is how to apologize. With plenty of practice, I get this one down.
I know how to be safe: I always have bus fare, I walk past catcalls, I keep to our neighborhood, I never walk alone at night.
I wait to be called. I wait to be kissed. Don’t give people something to talk about, you say. Save yourself for marriage, no one wants a girl who’s been around.
Here’s how you try to content yourself with home and husband, and your library half-days surrounded by books. Here’s how to learn to drive, but never get to use the car.
This is how to have parents who are upright and uptight, uncool and wary of afros and confrontation and loud pride. This is how to be embarrassed by you, how to argue and scorn and push against your codes.
This is the I.
This is how to leave. This is how to come back. And leave again. How to do addition and subtraction at the same time.
Here’s the way to take notes and always do the reading and make outlines and think analytically and study for exams. This is how to write a thesis statement and topic sentence, and develop an argument and cite sources and make a bibliography. This is how to revise.
I try harder and better, maximize my options, embrace and reject your admonitions, make you proud.
This is how to get an A, even when the work is not graded.
I find the perfect fiancé. Handsome, but not so pretty as to make one worry. Well dressed, but not so flashy as to draw undue attention. Articulate, polished, reliable, and presenting a diamond of respectable, but tasteful size. I have good answers to your questions: Where is he from? Who are his people? Alpha or Kappa? Prospects for employment? Good grades?
This is how I wear your veil with my frothy white confection, and go down the aisle on Daddy’s arm. How to look at all the people who have come for the wedding show, make my vow, make a champagne toast, make the perfect couple. And this is how to push away the doubts like all of the brides before me, promising, promising, promising everybody but myself.
“Remember those fishing knots?” Daddy asks in a rare moment of intimate exchange, just before he gives me away. I laugh and recite: snell knot, clinch knot, blood knot, reef knot, half hitch…and he says, “Make sure you and Francis have a strong knot. One that will hold.”
When the heart attack comes, I learn how to mourn a phantom father, more monument than man. He is gone before I’ve been promoted or bought a house or attained success or produced a grandson. Now you say, again and again: he would have been so proud.
He is gone and you are bound to him, still, reeling without the order that his leaving and returning have brought to your days. No one to do for, cook for, get pretty for. Wait for. No one to remember who you were and might have been.
You carry on. We carry on, buoyed by the promise of a baby boy, due in wintertime.
This is how I push him out under hospital light, my hand in yours, daughter and mother, both. As we gaze at the miracle of him, our heads together, I smell your smell and whisper in your hair: This is the true, triple bond that doesn’t ever come undone.
Francis beams at his boy-child, snaps photos, hands out cigars. But he is already growing distant, pulling away from the stifling reaches of the commonplace, and we find, after all, that ours is a weak tie, fraying, pulling free.
Soon he is ex-, appearing on weekends, replacing my Nos with the Yeses of fleeting outings and temporary afternoon fun.
Here’s how to be alone on Friday night, and how to be done with waiting. I ignore your voice and forehead frown, and make the first move, make the first call, throw caution to the wind. Choose impermanence. Choose a stranger. Choose the blur of temporary lust.
And this is how I opt for the reddest lipstick and let my hair do its thing: be wild and frizzy and bushy and free.
The world gets bigger, deeper. There is more, and less, for me.
Here’s how my boy learns to say goodnight and get dressed and hold a spoon and play peek-a-boo and go potty and say how much he loves me, and speak and learn the alphabet and write his name: nathan (for its meaning: he gave), and crack the many codes. And leave, by small degrees.
This is a family, and you help me cheer him on for all his firsts. Down on the floor despite aching knees, you build with wooden blocks and Lego’s, play knights and firemen, work puzzles. You pass on the stories of will and pride.
And you say: Do it this way, not that way. That will spoil him. That will hurt him. That will make him soft, lazy, disrespectful, late.
Mama, Mama, I tell you, some things are the same and some are different. Some things we get to revise. Pride stinging, you move aside, but stay and try to bend.
This is how I teach him to cook. How to set and clear the table. How to wash dishes and counters and floors and clothes.
When he learns that fewer and fewer people have more and more of the money, and we live further from the don’t end than before, I tell him to ask how the ones with the money got and keep and pass it on, and figure out what to do about that.
Here’s how to try and teach openness and love, alongside the weight of history. Do unto others…do not judge by color or creed…do not forget…and be ready to fight.
I tell him to do his best, to try and try harder. They do not mean everything, but he will still need those A’s. He must still do better, be better, just to be thought as good. They’ll say he’s undeserving, they’ll say he took their spot. Defy, defy, defy their declining expectations. We are upright and hardworking. We do not give up. Your great-grandfather got free…
Latin disciplines the mind, but he takes Spanish, language of the future, and I help him conjugate: amo, amas, ama, amamos, amáis, aman.
This is the way to juggle and multitask and stress, working working working, managing, ferrying, holding down and making do. Doctor at 1. School pickup at 3. Meetings before and after. Fall asleep, one page into a book, at 9.
I try to focus on breath, strive to accept and release, seek the light within. I mess up and try again. And I pray like this: Please let him be safe from the pull of the street, from hateful white people, from the police. Please let him return to me, body and soul intact, remembering Mama loves him, always will.
I do what I can with respect to sprouting hair and body funk and hormones, cracking voice and acne and clothes that will surely lead to ridicule. About the boy/man things below the surface, I tell him to ask his father. But I can help him learn to question and trust himself, to converse instead of texting, to listen and respect and touch with tenderness.
I tell him it is his to figure out who and what and how he loves, and what this family will be. Dare to not fit in, I tell him. Speak out of turn when the reason is good.
This is the I, and I become the embarrassment, unhip and clueless about tweeting and Snapchat and hip hop and the new-old slang, and they are my codes that he now defies.
And these are the new reductions: smooth skin, black hair, narrow waist, naïve pride, endless possibility, all fall away. I let the hair do its thing once more: be gray. And this is how to become invisible, how to move from sexy to matronly, everywhere but deep inside my heart.
And you, Mama, are my anchor through it all, helping me to stand and fall and stand.
It is my turn, now.
Careful as you push the walker. Watch for carpet bumps and loose edges. Wear the shoes with better treads. You can’t reach your shoes? Then I will tie them for you. Remember when you taught me how? First, hold this loop with the left hand…
Smothered pork chops and fried chicken? We don’t eat like that anymore, Mama. Don’t you know you cook the nutrients out when you make the greens that way? What did I thaw for dinner? I didn’t. But we’ll eat, we’ll eat something, something from the deli or the freezer, I’ll figure it out. Skinless chicken, stir-fried tofu and kale. You should eat more vegetables, have wheat toast instead of white.
Don’t forget to clean your dentures, I say. Again. You can’t wear that shirt out, it’s got a stain on the front. These glasses are for reading, not walking around, and they need cleaning. Like I showed you, this is how you turn the volume down and this is how you change the channel.
This is how you depend on me and resent it, remember and forget.
This is how the world narrows.
See how my hands hold and wash and steady and smooth? Lift your legs a little bit, like this, Mom, so I can help you on with that. I know, I know you hate it. You are sure the diaper’s leaking, but it is not, and this is how to get the go and see. The wheels and the push.
And here’s how you mix up a.m. and p.m. Button your sweater wrong. Fumble with the phone. Ask what time we’re going again, fail to bring up the right word, forget your bra. Keep and lose your pride.
You say: I keep on making mistakes.
I say: When can we be done with getting A’s?
You get the We with guilt, if need be. When are you coming, why haven’t I seen you, are you leaving already, when will you be back, why can’t I still live with you, Char?
This is the way to be alone. Wishing for Daddy, for me, for Nathan. Wishing for your own long-lost mother, wishing for all the ones who knew you when.
Beautiful from all that your face tells, without foundation or mascara or rouge, you still ask for your lipstick. But lucky for us, black don’t crack.
You tell about the citrus and almond talcum powder smell of your grandpa’s barbershop, and then lose the story’s thread. I say: Tell me, tell me again, tell me everything.
I come as soon as I am able, fitting you in between lectures and meetings and appointments, stretching myself across washing clothes and fixing dinner and errands and carpools, between showing how to make an outline and trying to remember algebra and marking papers and recovering lost dentures, slippers, reading glasses. I am an acrobat, leavening anger and frustration with love and piety and memory, trying, still, to make you proud.
And this is how you retreat, the disease that pillages taking, taking, never satisfied, taking until oblivion and death are mercies.
This is the I.
You are casting off. A pull from your side, and then release.
I stagger and struggle to stand, grief my steady partner now. Nathan does his mourning privately, and we carry on. I look for you in doorways, and you return to me with a sudden smell, a lucent memory of busy, smoothing hands. I hear your voice inside my head, your voice inside my voice.
Slip knot. Blood knot. Subtraction and everlasting remainder.
This is the letting go.