A sweet hummingbird playing at landing, she dances at threshold of our front door, pointing at clouds and cats, not yet venturing onto the stoop. Pitter-patters drum the hardwood floor – an excavator unearthing magnets beneath laundry piles, daring the mouth of the hallway bin to swallow goats and tigers and elephants. Laughter overtakes her, bursting from her belly, and she catches her breath, eager to earn a reaction again. Entire afternoons are spent peeking behind curtains, feigning surprise. She is a delicate, mindful girl.
It had been a simple accident.
She likes to pull the Velcro tabs on her tiny brown shoes and giggles at the tearing sound. Scrip, scrip, first right, then left, detaching the t-strap and freeing her feet. The tinkling titter comes from the back of her throat like a bird call as she flutters about the sidewalk, glancing time and again over her shoulder, ensuring mama is close behind.
Tripping over the loosened shoe, she mostly caught herself, one knee taking her weight as her outstretched hands smacked at the pavement. I sucked in the hot air of an Indian summer, stuck watching as her surprised face leaned forward, unsteady as a hatchling, scratching her flawless veneer ever so lightly on the pavement. No tears fell, but the brief shock was apparent and consuming, and her bird call turned somber as I swallowed my heartache.
For many days I tended to a sliver in her fair skin, rubbing coconut oil into her milky velvet smoothness, checking my own vanity as it healed over, every trace of its existence vanished like the initial surprise of the fall itself. She remained a flittering creature, unfazed by my doting, looking instead from knee to knee, examining the startling difference between marked and untouched parts of herself. Cleaning the tiny pinkness of her cheek, attending to her so specifically, I found myself anxious. I contemplated an unwanted milestone, the first of many puckish antics, and discovered a yearning to preserve the pristine surface of her existence.
What, I wondered, was this knowing sinking beneath my ribs?
I was seven the first time I saw the bright white world beneath my brown casing. Running quickly across the play yard, I tripped in mulch and splayed my little self about the black top. The impact ripped my tights - a white, wooly pair I loved with a quilted pattern. A wide flap of skin that used to cover my knee hung now from the cap. I stared at the shocking alabaster, a foreign sight, as small capillaries allowed blood to break the surface like runners at a race’s end. How odd and sharp the pain, I thought. I wore large bandages across the wound for weeks and was irritated by the itchy growth of new skin around the edge. It is my first memory of a chink in my supple armor.
At twenty-one, working for a film producer off Spring Street in Manhattan. I never found vintage boots in my modern size nines, and I had worn down my lone pair. My heel pushed into the back, stretching the leather, and the sole popped off often. Many visits to a cobbler built a friendship between Hank and I, who only shook his head when I entered the shop. One frigid, sunny morning, I exited the subway onto the sloped sidewalk. With a whoosh, my foot slipped from beneath me, sending my knee into the ragged asphalt. I limped seven blocks to the office and begged an Oscar-winner for a band aid shamefully, running to Rite-Aid on my lunch break for new tights.
New Orleans, 25, and my bike tire caught in the streetcar track on a rainy morning, wedging itself and sending me careening over the handlebars. My slick trench coat shielded me as I landed in a puddle, the force propelling me beneath a parked car.
I’ve wobbled in high heels, drunk on champagne and a shimmery new love. I’ve tripped across cobblestones in Scotland, chasing art and the dawn. I’ve scraped and torn my outer layer countless times. My brown skin has been nicked and bruised and scarred, tossed about and gashed wide open. In those days merely my pride and a few pairs of tights were damaged. I have long ago learned to forgive myself the clumsy missteps of my feet and look past the circular faded scars of a life lived joyfully.
As I reinvent myself through motherhood, I expose dormant fears, and nursing her petite cut, I found a rumbling in my gut that spoke of judgment. Of taunts and gossip. Imperfections can pierce souls such as sensitive as she, my heart whispered. Injury is the business of growing up. Ache and hurt and wounds are rights of passage into adulthood, and perhaps the single unifying thread. This is childhood, I told my heart, hoping to calm the bubbling up of worry. But it persisted, steady and lingering in my mind. Poking at me in the night, I opened a space for the nagging to untangle and reveal itself, and I heard the voice I had so determinedly drowned out:
At least I’m not mixed.
Of all the forgotten youthful blunders, there is one distinguished bitterness. Back on that second grade black top was a painted track. Two lanes stretched from end to end, and I often liked to whip across. My knee fully healed, I had begun to take up sprinting with students, and found I was rather good at a short distance. I held the honor of having beaten many boys, and a girl in my class who never much cared for me challenged my speed one afternoon. We raced, and when beaten, she puckered her lips as if tasting the tart shame. In my childish cleverness, I asserted her big feet had slowed her down, and she informed me she cared little.
At least I’m not mixed. So haughty and confident in her whispered violence.
I held a lump of sorrow in my throat that afternoon, and snuck two cookies before my mother came home from work. I let the tears fall freely as I asked her what mixed meant. I remember the pause before she spoke, and the gentle ring of her soft voice as she explained. It made sense to me: to be of two humans, and to be their blended offering to the world. I wondered who was not mixed by this definition and began to take easy pride in the word. I am mixed, I said strongly, my voice unwavering. To me, it meant, I am theirs, I am equal parts of them.
My pearly girl is lighter than I – a copy of her grandmother’s coloring, ivory and blonde-tipped. I feel the weight of watching eyes upon me as we navigate the world heart to heart. The deafening echo of those words rings in my ears with cruel sharpness these twenty odd years later. The sting of being labeled and marked penetrates a soft spot in my heart. Words like nanny cut me to the quick, and I recognize in staring faces the disbelief and awe of a mother and child so differently shaded. Alabaster she and bronze I. The glances send the blood rushing to my cheeks, and I recall this moment in the kitchen with my mother, who handed me a cookie unknowingly as she gave logic to my grief. I look at my child and in her eyes, her wrinkled nose, her six-toothed grin I see myself. I am yours, I say.
And so, it occurred to me that the deep, reverberating fear which had lodged in my throat, unspeakably chilling was not the inescapable wounds of a life lived out loud, with glee and revelry, cheerfully fooling around, but rather the imperceptible. The visible scars of youth are trifling compared to the invisible indignities, and yet we are equal parts of them.
This tiny wobble had opened wide for me a frightful, concealed, neglected wound: I cannot govern how my child is known. By scars or color of her skin, by trifling casualty or monstrous calamities. I have no authority over the opinions of bystanders and meddling observers. A schoolyard suffering, whether spill or spoken, is out of my hands. She will be injured over and over, and trauma is not limited to superficial injuries, but can be epic, visceral, penetrating wounds. I wanted to heal this. I found myself covering her smooth skin in clothes, hoping to protect and shield her from the jagged paths and bumpy journeys of the world.
The lingering southern heat made the fall morning humid, and I pulled a sweet purple dress over her tawny curls. Slipping arms through polka-dotted holes, I leaned her onto her back, tickling her belly and listening to her snickering song. I pulled crisp white socks over precious toes, kissing her knees. I hadn’t notice the healed spot. I had missed the new growth releasing the past and taking hold, but there, on her knee, was a circular scar of lily-white. Against this, her pale skin looked golden, and the breath soared from my lungs.
I cannot reign over the vision of my child. I can only tend to the wounds. I can wash clean the dirt of the world and words, allowing time to take its course healing her. She is all the stardust and drumbeats of the world in a tender, fluttering, soaring being. As the trips and falls and glides through the world, she will leave bits of herself and her soul on all creatures and trails. She comes from a clumsy brown woman, and will become one.