Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing

By Toi Derricotte b. 1941 Toi Derricotte
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, www.upress.pitt.edu. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

Source: Captivity (1989)

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Poet Toi Derricotte b. 1941

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Home Life, Youth, Living, Relationships

Holidays Christmas

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Toi  Derricotte

Biography

Toi Derricotte is an award-winning poet whose writings, though frequently autobiographical, treat universal subjects such as racism and identity in ways that are moving, painful, and illuminating. Her style is credited with an evocative simplicity reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, though it also contains the kind of expansive colloquial expression attributed to Walt Whitman. Derricotte is also known for treating sexual topics with . . .

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SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Home Life, Youth, Living, Relationships

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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