Did I Know You Back Then?
when I came home wearing a gélè my mother
looked at me as if I were a stranger
my father said black is beautiful
my mother insisted I remove the gélè
so she could see all that so-called beauty
and my hair released from the wrap
bounded out in the glossy kinks of an afro

when I came home sporting a brand new
passport and a fellowship to foreign places
my mother's unfolded her litany of warnings
and Jennie gave me her standard caution
best learn to pee in a coca cola bottle
she said remembering the jim crow limits
of traveling across these united states

when I came home with a new husband
not from any branch of our extended relations
my mother's first question as he took
off his coat: how's your finances?
my hazel eyed Irishman grinned from ear to ear
and sat down beside my father
to talk military politics and jim beam

when I came home with a PhD
and yet another divorce still fresh my mother
said they'll find you dead some place
nobody has ever been
while she plucked
imaginary lint from my clothes and hair
the wall behind her chair dedicated to me
adorned with photos drawings awards

when I came home to accept an honor
from a local poetry group my mother
complained that there was no one
in the hotel to look after me  and those
who recognized her as my mother
said she sat in the back row grumbling
about missing dinner as I read each poem

when I came home on a stop over
along a transoceanic route my mother
cooked a box lunch of chicken feet
and rice old style with the toes sticking
up like baby fingers escaping the mire
something for the plane she said
like your granma used to make
pressing the foil wrapped dish in my hand
as if it were the final link to family

each time I came home not enough
or too often too long and might as well not
each time at the arrival gate she tweaked
loose strands of hair loose threads
all of me out of whack and out of place
the barriers of what kept us at odds
each from the other in the web of our invention
and always I left taking a little of her with me

--- From Blood Memory
Colleen J. McElroy
©2016 University of Pittsburgh Press

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