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Mother Knows Best: "Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing"

Written by

Toi Derricotte

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May 10, 2012
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This is one of the few poems that I showed my mother during her life, and she loved it. It let her know how much I appreciated and remembered her beauty and, also, how much I appreciated how hard she worked. When my mother was in her forties, she divorced my father and, for some reason, perhaps because of the stress, developed a skin disease that affected her face. She was so beautiful that this must have been devastating. My mother wanted me to write about the "good" things, as she said. Once I realized that it must be a terrible thing to know (even if unconsciously) that your child is going to be a poet and use your life for material, I developed some sympathy for my mother's point of view. But this poem, from my point of view, is about my loneliness and longing to touch my mother. I look at her in the mirror. I look at her in memory.

But, in the end, I never do touch her. The closest I get is when she lets me help her put her dress on. Then I get to look directly at her face.

     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
     and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a
     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
     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.

Excerpt from Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. Published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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The poets in this collection present poems about their mothers and dis...