When I was a child I’d pull the white hairs
from my mother’s head. It was a chore
like any other—like making my bed
in the morning, folding my clothes at night.
I was neat, as a child, and took pleasure
in maintaining the proper order of things.
The Tinker Toys back in the box when I
was done, the Lego blocks, too, the Spirograph
wheels still warm from spinning over white space
to trace blue and red lines, the lines that
multiplied the way the shelves of books and records
would when I got older. When I was young,
I’d look so closely at my mother’s hair
that I’d swear I could smell the white ones—
they were cold and slightly bitter, if bitter
could describe a smell, a scent. They had no
expression, could never twist and turn
to form strong words the way the black ones could.
I’d spot them, zero in with the tweezers,
thinking myself a doctor of sorts,
removing bad hair like germs, tumors,
bad blood, bad sugar, bad habits, bad luck.
I’d ease my grip on the tweezers, drop
the white hairs on a paper towel I’d
laid beside me on the big living room chair.
They were ready to throw away, in the trash,
where they could never make my mother old,
make her weak and frail, or make her stop
to catch her breath when she could still walk fast,
down the steps to the street, with me, to this
square city that was always home to me.
But sometimes home, for her, was somewhere else.
Home was where she wanted to be all those
fed-up-with-here, life-is-harder-here than
back home some nine thousand miles away days.
But when I was pulling white hairs there was
only this city, this home. I’d count the hairs
I’d pulled, each hair a mile, each number a
dividing of distance and the immeasurable
light speed of time. This was the record
of our work—that which she’d done and
that which lay ahead of me, and these long,
perilous journeys over land and sea to get to America.
The photograph of Margarita S. Padua was taken in the early 50s, possibly somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley.