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« A Mother's Advice to Her Children | Main | Letter to Muriel Rukeyser at the End of the Twentieth Century »

White Rain

Although it is summer evening,
hair spray and Nescafé
smell so strong and familiar
it makes one wonder if it is morning or night.
In the yellow bathroom,
the girl takes her seat facing
the wall full of  tiles
interlocking like arms squaring to lift their black centers.
The mother untwists the rubber band
and a few strands snap. 

She leans her belly into the girl's spine. 
Lightly the amber brush, then
the wide speckled comb
untangle the limp brown hair.
The mother's hands smooth
the girl's skull, circle it at the crown,
wrap the red rubber band around the hank
quickly, perfectly, twice,
as if it were an entire plant of celery in her hands.
All is luminous:  approaching blonde.

Every Saturday the mother's freckled hands
pour gold over the girl's head;
then the piercing scent of sliced lemons,
and a warm water veil
flows down from a white kitchen cup. 
The sun slants through the slats of the blinds,
falls on a thick lemon shell rocking
on its shiny pocked rind,
its soft white center slimy and spent.
The mother reaches for the slim girl
waiting on the back of the bottle.

She is my mother in a cotton housedress,
and I am the freckled eleven year old,
who, more than anything else
wants to be able to sleep over
an entire night at a friend's house,
without waking homesick in the inconsolable night:
Will you drive me home now please?
I worry that my mother is alone there. 
I have to get back to her.

I remember the brittle knots
ripped from the bristles of  those days, 
when your hands held my head
in the kitchen sink, my naked back cold and wet,
the sounds of water pounding,
my head lumbered
involuntarily, and looked up at you,
like it was someone else's head,
maybe your head,

turning, as it did years later
from the front seat of the car,
when you first saw your grandchild,
part black, part jew, part you--
six years old sitting next to me in the back seat,
her best dress  tied with a wide blue ribbon. 
She was waiting to meet you, when,
smiling, you turned your gray head,
reached your hand back naturally to touch her,
and that same hand that washed my hair
recoiled from her nappy head

like the snake that lived under the screen porch
of your childhood where you pumped
the water into the bucket,
the screen door slapped hard, twice
and  your younger sisters lined up
at the farmhouse sink every Saturday.
You tied on your mother's bleached apron,
and washed them over and over
head after head,  girl after girl
in the same water, careful
not to waste the rain.

“White Rain” under the title "Virginia 1957-1977-1997,"   was published in Ms. Nov.-Dec.1997. 

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