Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing,” by Toi Derricotte

Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing

My mother was not impressed with her beauty;
once a year she put it on like a costume,
plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,
in one rope-thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,
and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,
with tortoise pins, like huge insects,
some belonging to her dead mother,
some to my living grandmother.
Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her,
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless it was weighted and bound in its
…..mask.
Vaseline shined her eyebrows,
mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;
her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.

Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even then were old from scrubbing,
whiter on the inside than they should have been,
and hard, the first joints of her fingers, little fattened pads,
the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens,
painted a jolly color.
Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away, prayed
for the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.
And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her
pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify
every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside.

But once a year my mother
rose in her white silk slip,
not the slave of the house, the woman,
took the ironed dress from the hanger—
allowing me to stand on the bed, so that
my face looked directly into her face,
and hold the garment away from her
as she pulled it down.

 

Toi Derricotte, “Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing,” from Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press and available for order here.

 

Toi Derricotte is the author of The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press 2011) and four earlier collections of poetry, including Tender, winner of the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her memoir, The Black Notebooks (W.W. Norton), received the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her honors include the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists. Derricotte is the cofounder (with Cornelius Eady) of the Cave Canem Foundation, Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her website is toiderricotte.com.

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