reflections WRITING

leopard

leopard

“In forty years I will write about this leopard print,” is not what came to mind as I fumbled through my mother’s dirty laundry in a stranger’s apartment.  I needed to wear something pretty for his visit, something that would make me look beautiful, and because I had no dresses, I thought to wear one of my mother’s blouses but all of them were dirty.

It was at the bottom of the box, wrinkled, and smelling of mildew because it sat nestled between damp towels.  I put it on anyway, figuring the smell would diminish once I went outside.  My hair was in braids and filled with red, white, and blue beads.  Mom knew a lady that for a dime bag, would sit me in front of her on the floor for eight hours to make tiny braids that turned my eyes Chinese and hurt my scalp for days yet made my hair an unnecessary chore for three months.  She let me watch Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazard, and Elvira, which at that time might have been soft porn.

I remember the place like yesterday, and though most of those memories are sad, there is a happy one.  Mom taught me how to wash dishes and clean a kitchen.  She let me stand on a chair so I could reach everything, and I pretended every dish was a doll playing in a bubble bath.  I’d spend hours washing dishes, but back then, it felt like playing, and I felt like a big girl who’d finally accomplished adult responsibilities.

The day I wore that ‘dress’ was the day after Dad said he was coming.  I sat outside in the grass next to a bush whose flowers made the tastiest stems.  While eating them I watched traffic, nervous and excited.  I wondered what he looked like, where he got his accent from, whether I looked like him or whether he’d teach me to talk like him.  As the day progressed I began wondering if he decided to buy me a gift and had stopped at a store, and when darkness came I began worrying that he’d been in a traffic accident.  Mom had been gone all day too, so I couldn’t ask her my questions.  Then I got angry at myself, realizing that he wouldn’t be able to see me sitting near a bush so I ran to stand by the front door after turning the outer lights on – surely he’d see me then.

Forty years later, the title of my first poetry book was “He Never Came and Other False Promises”.  It was never published, nor was it intended to be.  It was sad, and sad without hope wasn’t the message I wanted to share with everyone.  But that day did something to me and to that little girl.  There is a part of her I’ve always attempted to pull away from the grass, from hiding in the bushes and savoring the sour parts of nature.  There were never thorns yet my arms are scarred with the repeated effort of digging through those dense thin branches of disappointment.  What looks like harm to some is really just courage, courage to dig deep, find roots, and break away from stagnant misconceptions that prevent the beauty of evolution

Today, I know Mom’s leopard print was ugly, and that I without any dress at all, was beautiful, but I broke many shovels before hitting that treasure of knowledge.

The day did come that Dad said he was sorry, that he wished this and that, but that day came a quarter century later, and the idea of his love had become for me the damp towels that scented my skin with mildew as a child. I no longer believed there was anything I could wear to validate his wishes or mine. I no longer wanted to dress up. See, Dad didn’t say it, but he wished he could have loved me, and I didn’t say it, but I wished he could have loved me too. So I sit here another quarter century later in the knowing that in his sixties, he just hadn’t learned how to show up for and love himself, and it’s okay, because I’ve learned how to grant wishes from afar.

And though that little girl doesn’t sit by the bushes anymore, she still waits in the grass. Leopards really don’t change their spots. She seems happy there most days, likely because so many flowers have been planted around her that the scent has become home.

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