Write It Poetry
Critic's Picks: MEMOIR

I love to write and have found it easiest to write about what I know. "Hotcombs, Watermelon, and Hello Kitty Backpacks" is about different events I was told about from other people's history, and what I encountered growing up, especially things my sister and I got into as small children. My goal when I write is to allow the reader to see what I see.

Editor's Comments:
A'Rynn takes the reader on a nostalgic trip through bittersweet childhood memories. The descriptions of her mother and sister are so powerful that you feel as if you know them.

Hot Combs, Watermelon, and Hello Kitty Backpacks

By A'Rynn D
age: 16

“Momma, she bit me again,” I yelled rubbing the pain out of my arm. “That stupid dog!”

“Tara, don’t talk about your sister like that! Sashay, get yo’ yella behind in here, now!” When she talked her voice clashed with the silence like lightening, and her body rumbled and shook.  She was a big woman, dark and creamy skinned.  Momma’s words could squeeze the smallest tear from your eyes.  Even when you weren’t in trouble and she called your name, just the memory of that extra cookie you took out of her special stash or the glass you dropped and tried to hide the pieces behind the curtain gave your tear ducts an 85 percent chance of a downpour even before you found out why she was calling.

“Mommy, I didn’t bite her! Tara was listening on the phone first,” Sashay whined.

“Only because you cut the hair off of Perming Ashinkishay Barbie!”

“That was cuz -- ”

“Girls! Lord, please deliver me from this evil!” Momma did that a lot: dropped to her knees, looked at the ceiling, and prayed.  Sometimes Sashay and I got down and did it too.

That was the year of hot combs, watermelon, and Hello Kitty backpacks.

The three of us lived in a small three bedroom house where there were really no hallways. When you walked out of one room, you were already in another.  One of the rooms was occupied by Momma’s sewing machine and brought to life by the many fabrics that lined the walls.   All colors and prints; all awaiting to be designed and structured into a dress for me, or a summer hat for Sashay, or a table cloth for Christmas dinner. Momma didn’t believe in buying things at the store when she could make them herself with her own “God-given hands”, as she called them.  We even had cabbage and tomatoes planted out back and chickens squawking in the coop beside the house. Oh, but our favorite was the watermelon patch about a half mile from our house. It wasn’t exactly ours, but the whole neighborhood owned it and took care of it.  So when the melons were ready, usually when it was hot outdoors, all us kids would go pick a melon and sit out on the side of the road having contests on who could eat theirs the fastest. Faces saturated, hands sticky, and tummies juiced with melon, we’d return home to disgusted mothers who had to hose us down before we could walk inside.

Our days were structured with school during the day, and then we played around in the neighborhood until it got dark. We pretty much knew not to do anything we weren’t supposed to, because somehow Momma would know about it before we even got home. She’d be waiting for us on the porch with her hand propped up on top her hip and her foot tapping the nails out of the porch frame.  Sometimes we’d think twice about opening the front gate, because we knew that at that time, it was the only thing between Momma’s heavy hand and…us. She’d tell us to pick a “switch” (a stick) and she’d watch us as we trudged around the yard and decided our fate. She’d whip us right there on the porch because she knew that if she let us get in the house before her, we’d hurry in our room and stuff our pants or put on extra layers to lessen the sting.  To this day, I can’t think of whose eyes told Momma on me and Sashay.

After our week of school, there was no doubt that we’d all three be cleaning the house on Saturday and waking up for church early Sunday morning. Momma woke up way before Sashay and I, cooked breakfast and had our dresses hanging up on our door. By the time we sat down to eat, she was dressed herself. We went to Fruit of the Vine Baptist Church where either you were really old or really young. Momma was the only woman her age. Most of the women were old and brought their grandchildren with them and stuck them in the back corner where all the kids were supposed to sit. We didn’t; we sat by Momma where she could keep an eye on us. Momma said that we’d “never learn anything about the good Lord sitting back there. That’s why them kids is bad as they is,” she’d pull us close and whisper in our ears. When we were younger we never questioned why we did things so much differently from the other kids; why momma wouldn’t allow us to grow as children first, make childish choices and it be okay. But we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t her fault. Momma just didn’t understand what it meant to grow up. Momma unfortunately was never our age; she was born old and will only get older!

We sat right up close, right in the first pew, farthest away from the only ceiling fan that was in the church and that failed to circulate any air, where, I swear, we could feel the preacher’s sweat flinging from his face and meeting me and Sashay on ours, where if you fell asleep, the preacher would come right up to you and holler “amen” right in your face and the whole church would laugh and say “hallelujah” as you jumped. Every Sunday somebody was bound to catch the Holy Ghost. The preacher would get to shouting and jumping on the pulpit and ask, “Do I have a witness?” and the congregation would answer with a “well” and “yeah.”  Hands, by that time, were waving and voices, some yelling out loud and some moaning to themselves. Then someone, somewhere, some lady would pop out of her seat, scream, and she was off, dancing around the church, and blaring to God words that only she knew the meaning of. Everyone else in the church paid no attention to her; everyone but me and Sashay and probably the other kids. We always watched her and would giggle as if we’d never seen anyone act that way. It was just a matter of time until Momma caught us and sent us the look and we knew we were in for it when we got home.  Pretty soon, the dancing lady had everybody worked up, and the whole church was clapping and jumping while the pianist’s fingers ran across the keys and somebody else banged their palm on a tambourine to the beat. When it was hot outside, it seemed twice as hot in the church. My freshly pressed dress was wrinkled and glued to my skin from all the moisture. My hair that was hot combed and tied up with a bow that matched my dress, was curling at the roots and had pieces of hair springing out all over the place by the time we were standing up for the benediction.

About once a month, or whenever Momma was tired of fighting with our hair, Sashay or I would be propped up on our knees on a kitchen chair with a hot comb laying down every strand of our hair with its intolerable heat. Momma would toast the cast-iron comb by putting it on the stove and would test it by licking a finger, quickly touch the tip of it, and the comb would hiss back at her telling her it was time. After placing a towel on the back of my neck, Momma would run the iron comb trough my hair in small portions at a time, making the process even longer than it really had to be. I’d flinch with every movement of her hand. Sometimes when she hadn’t even picked up the comb, my back would already be curled up tight, eyes clinched shut, jerking away from her, anticipating the next stroke of heat that would slip through my hair. Soon after, tension and fear were replaced with relief as Momma freely combed through my hair with an ordinary comb. No longer did Momma have to rake through it; no longer was styling my hair a struggle of two forces: Momma’s hand and the underlying naps residing in my hair. I opted to stay inside rather than playing outdoors after having my hair hot combed, in an effort to preserve my recently straightened hair.

There were only three reasons why a girl my age wasn’t found outside in the evenings: sick, in trouble, or just got her hair straight and didn’t want to reverse its results so soon. You knew better than to come home with your hair returned to its recent condition of thick wavy roots within the same week of its transformation to silky, manageable locks. This hot combing process continued until you were about 14, where you began going into the beauty shop for relaxers. By that time you were a woman doing womanly things to your hair like parting it and wearing it down rather than up in five separate plats springing out from your head like branches from a tree with barrettes that matched each dress.  I was ready to make that transition from girl to woman and strut out of a beauty shop one day with hair lustrously straight, able to swing it from side to side after hearing the town’s gossip conversed between me and the other women with their womanly heads in the shampoo bowls and under dryers in the shop. Until then I had to endure the wrath of the hot comb and wait for my time to come.

Sometimes, during the summer, we had church outside under a tent with chairs spread underneath it. The heat inside the church would be so unbearable that the direct beating of the sun outdoors somehow felt better. The summer meant that we were free temporarily and out on bond until we had to return back to school and to prearranged days. Momma made a new pitcher of fresh lemonade every morning, the house was cleaned, clothes washed, and breakfast prepared by time Sashay and I were awake. To this day, I still wonder how she did it. Momma’s day was well on its way when the rest of the world was just rolling out of bed. The house was usually awakened by the shaking of the screen door; no one ever knocked but just rattled our old wire screen until someone rushed to answer it. It was either some old woman from the church or a middle-aged man coming by to sit and have coffee with Momma. As a child, you never actually take in life’s beauty, but I always knew that Momma had something that I didn’t see in other women; a glow about her, making her set apart. I’ve come to realize that Momma was a beautiful woman from the smile on her face, on down to the way she stuck her chest out and arched her back when she walked, and to the way you couldn’t help but listen when she talked. The words she spoke were always as beautiful as the mouth they flowed from. We called the love-struck men that visited Momma her boyfriends, but she refused to agree that they were, even though the hint of pink emerging from underneath her cheeks wished differently. Momma and her guest sat on the porch while Sashay and I played in the sprinklers and with the water hose in the front yard.  Momma always said not to listen in on “grown folk’s conversations”, but when she’d be talking and sitting on the porch, I’d watch her and observe everything she did, the way her mouth rounded out her words, and the way her eyes never left yours when you talked to her.  Sometimes when me and Sashay played, I’d pretend to be Momma and I’d try to walk slow but still cover a lot of ground like she did, and make my hands cut through the air as I talked. Momma was who I would one day become if I continued to stay under her wing. If I kept practicing her moves, if I kept sitting by her in church, and understanding why she gave us the look when we did wrong, I’d allow her to mold me and make me the woman my momma was. It was all a part of her master plan. She knew one day I would understand what she was doing. She knew that in time I’d realize that my momma was instilling morals and the idea that I don’t have to accept the minimum that life hands to us, but to go far and beyond the average and create my own standards and live above them everyday.

 It was then, the year of hot combs, watermelon, and Hello Kitty backpacks, that I lost my mother and the same year that I found out exactly who she was and who I longed to be when my time comes.

Poetry    Essay    Memoir
Short Fiction    Humor
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