Thursday evenings in the Anderson household were about routine. It was laundry day. It was garage clean-up day. It was refrigerator inventory day. Mabel knew this because it had been her own routine for the last fifty years. Today, it was part of her life, sunken into her skin like wrinkles of time, a result of being alive for far too long.
She willed her knees to push her up from the basement, through the swinging door of the kitchen. After Earl’s passing, she found herself wearing many of his hats in a way that was too natural to be comfortable. Her long-time friend had put it best, about a month after the funeral: “It’s like you had been waiting all along to do this.”
Her toolbox went right under the kitchen sink, and her gloves went in the leftmost drawer. She paused, arms on the kitchen counter, before washing her hands. Her daughter worried about these pauses, so Mabel just told her she was thinking. “I’m just thinkin’, sweet cheeks. Don’t stress it.” Rachel wouldn’t hear it, though. “Why don’t you just get some helping hands, Ma?” Mabel always scoffed at this. Wasn’t a thing any helping hands could do better than her in this house… As long as she could keep time at bay.
Over the years, her fight against time had become more about her physical existence than about her physical presentation. She had long given up trying to hold up the skin of her cheeks and her forearms, and was instead preoccupied with holding up this body — hiding the growing cracks, patching up every new hole, and making peace with the parts that were damaged beyond repair. The world expected her to settle into senility, but didn’t exactly make a dream destination of it.
The front door swung open, then shut. The thud of bags loud with the things of a working woman’s life called Mabel to stand up, and slowly walk to the living room. “Ma?” Shoes joined the bags, and Rachel shuffled into the living room in her socks. She pulled off her hair tie and let her hair down, before slumping into the couch. She closed her eyes, and felt the pressure of the day moving in her body. Her back, arms, and legs ached all at once; almost too much for her to feel any relief.
Every day, she had to fight the same ghosts. Early in her life, then in her career, she put as much as she could on her plate so people would believe her when she said she was hungry. She picked up side gigs and responsibilities as though they would be her salvation — she honestly, truly believed it, too. “The more I do, the more they’ll let me do,” she explained to her mom in the kitchen many years ago, after being released from the ER.
When she found out she was pregnant with Kiara, Mabel had begged her to reconsider. “You don’t half-ass raising a child, child.” Turns out, you don’t half-ass anything you care about. She leaned into Kiara as much as she could — because they needed each other. There were things she wished she hadn’t put the child through, but she convinced herself that it was all worth it — and if it wasn’t, it would be soon. It was the only way she wouldn’t go crazy.
Just like most women in her position, she felt like everyone but herself. She felt like the only child of expectations, the Perfect Mom candidate, the charming potential girlfriend, the easygoing yet dependable friend, the overtime superstar, the forever faithful… And whatever other catsuit a middle-aged black woman was supposed to push and pack herself into. You gotta do what you gotta do, right? Otherwise… The world falls apart, or something like that.
She pulled her legs up to the edge of the couch just as Kiara walked through the front door and made a beeline for the stairs.
“Good evening, Kiara!” Despite her exhaustion, Rachel’s voice was strong enough to pull her daughter back down the steps, and into the living room. Kiara walked slowly, her eyes never leaving the toes of her shoes. “What’s the matter with you? You payin’ rent, now?” A thick silence. “Come say hi to me and your grandma.” Heavy footsteps brought soft pecks to Rachel and Mabel’s cheeks. Just as she was about to turn around and go back up the stairs, Rachel grabbed Kiara’s arm and softly pulled her down to the couch.
“Hey. What’s wrong?” Kiara slid off the edge of the couch to the floor, and let her head roll onto the seat.
“Well,” Rachel said, “you don’t look like nothing.”
“It’s just…” Kiara reached under her headband to scratch her scalp. “It’s just school.”
“Mmm. What about it?”
Mabel walked over to the couch, settled in, and guided Kiara to sit between her knees. “I don’t know,” Kiara sighed, “It’s just hard. The kids are… They don’t like me.” Mabel knew that speech all too well, having heard it from Rachel many years ago. She reached into a nearby drawer, and pulled out a comb and some hair grease. “What’s goin’ on in that school of yours, baby?”
While she had to force her body to remember how to do everything else, Mabel’s hands never forgot how to care for hair. Rachel warned her that it was no good for her arthritis, but it somehow made the pain go away. She parted her grand-daughter’s hair, and felt herself breathing differently… Steadily. Kiara’s hair was growing in thick and fierce, just like her mother’s at that age. Maybe there was some kind of comfort to be found in the things that didn’t change and break down as time went by.
“My teacher told me to do my hair. And the kids tried taking pictures of me in the hallway after first period. I want to get a perm. Can I get a perm, mom? I don’t want to be a freak.” The words fell out like water through a wide-open valve, an exhausted existence so honest that Rachel and Mabel wished they could’ve lived it for her.
Sucking her teeth, Rachel got up from the seat cushion, and climbed onto the backrest, behind her mother. “Oh, baby. You ain’t no freak. You know that, don’t you?” She watched her mother doing Kiara’s hair. When she was a child, Rachel remembered asking, “Mama, you gon’ have white hair like grandma?” Mabel had laughed a hearty laughter. “White as snow, baby!” Now, soft waves of white hair raced from Mabel’s hairline to her nape, pulled in a loose bun. Rachel pulled on the hair tie, and felt the weight of her mother’s hair in her hands. Mabel had always taken pride in taking care of herself as a young woman, and it showed.
From the same drawer, Rachel grabbed a soft brush, and started brushing her mother’s hair. “Mmm. Thank you, baby,” Mabel whispered, grabbing some hair grease with her index finger, then rubbing it between both her hands. A strong, but familiar aroma filled the living room, and Kiara closed her eyes as her grandmother massaged her scalp.
The tension in Rachel’s shoulders faded a little bit. Yes, these were another pair of shoes for her to fill, but she would do so in a heartbeat. If it meant taking some weight off the shoulders of people who did the same for her, she never questioned it. From her thoughts, she heard Kiara laugh at something her grandmother said, and she smiled.
It felt good to know that there were some things that life, time, or other people couldn’t take away from her. Looking at her mother and at her daughter, she knew that they understood it too, each in their own way. Time couldn’t put a dent in the way Mabel’s cornrows sat on Kiara’s scalp, or the way she knew just what to say to an anxious teenager. People couldn’t dim Kiara’s spirit for too long — she was too bright and too bold a force of life. Life couldn’t ask everything of Rachel, because some things she had to decide to give.
The world was never fully right — not with itself, and not with the women in this room, but for just a while… They could make each other right. Some versions of themselves they would never be able to be – too distorted by society, but there were others that would always fit just like a second skin.
Written by NOIREDELATOUR