Boll Weevil and Me*
Some say trees grow back fast in the woods
After great fire. The same muck and dust.
Mother hated the past, all our earthly goods
In leather bags and on our backs. The cost
On ten fingers…let me guess.
I lost my red tricycle, my block alphabet,
A doll with blonde hair and a blue dress,
A blue record player and a set
Of little yellow records and rhymes—
Oh, my xylophone! I forgot…all those hard times…
Of course, I didn’t lose my name,
The depth of my skin, twist of my hair,
My small pox vaccination or my claim
To High Church infant rebirth, whatever
God and government had stamped and filed.
Yet, in a flash all went up in smoke,
My right to breathe as a documented child—
However black and naked, of the flock.
No paper meant no proof. No photo, truly bereft
Of that first baby step. Not a footprint left.
Smoke barely cleared, some papers unreplaced
For years, Mother packed, unpacked, from room
To room, street to street, not hunted or disgraced,
But, hidden from me, a righteous venom
Driven. First, Aunt Lou’s home—how I wished we could
Stay ‘til the burnt house got fixed! But her horrible rugs!
Everywhere I stepped—I stepped in the darkest blood,
Full of squirmy worms and fat swimming bugs!
Why, Aunt Lou? Except for wire spectacles,
A twin, cocoa to her Sis Vi’s (Mama’s) caramels.
Worse, her front porch was spooky and dark, and taller
Than me, bunched up in clay pots on the window sills
Stood a jungle of green and yellow stripes—who wouldn’t holler
First then look twice? Plants like snakes! Even with my dolls
I wouldn’t hide there from the hot sun and fake
Folks, ringing the bell, crashed from outer space
Or like radio bank robbers ready to stake
Their last shoot-out at Aunt Lou’s place!
Mother screamed when Cousin Butch cut all my hair—
“You look like a peanut head boy!” Snap! We left there.
Mother moved us to Trenton next.
In a tiny room or two on a leafy street.
Daddy still lived at Fort Dix
And stayed with us only for a treat.
I had friends—not cousins—a girl old enough
For school in the fall with two pigtails, black
Like mine, a brother who didn’t play rough,
And because I had none, let me ride his trike.
The biggest house at the end of the block
Stood like a mansion in a picture book.
Nobody lived there but the oldest folk.
Mornings each sat in a rocking chair
On the open porch. Never heard them laugh or talk.
Straight ahead they all seemed to stare.
And the whitest skin and hair! Not like the grocer
Back home smelling like the sausages he sold,
Or department store clerks or stars in picture
Shows. Whiter than everybody! These old
Folks looked like ghosts. And so skinny.
Not supposed to stare. But they were so spooky!
One day their spookiness disappeared a bit.
From the porch spread a great green lawn
With a long downhill path, an iron fence around it.
Not flat, great to ride a trike up and down!
But no kids allowed—on private grass.
One day somebody in the old folks’ home
Or some lady in a stiff white hat and dress
Said we could play there in the afternoon
When the old folks disappeared. Like us
Did they take naps? Wasn’t that nice?
But Mother refused to live on the army base—
Fierce sunlight, no trees, for peace-time hoards
Rows of square huts—an ugly place.
They talked ugly to each other. Fighting words.
I never heard words like that before.
Not even on the radio and people could hear.
But I loved the army forever—
The PX was the biggest store—like a fair
In the movies—you could buy anything there!
And the cafeteria—Oh, can’t we stay together!
Back home again in the fall, months after the fire.
Baptized again. This time, St. James. I never knew
This new brown godmother, hovering in prayer,
Never asked why for I never had a clue
About the first one. Just in time for Catholic school?
Mother rented a room in a neat row house
Owned by a neat childless colored couple.
She stayed home, played piano—a teacher, I suppose.
Mother took me to a bright Christmas play
And I sat in the back on an old nun’s knee.
Green leaves. Red and orange leaves. Yellow and brown leaves.
Like feathers, like fans. Scatter and float and fly away.
Along the red brick sidewalk, the red brick houses all in a row.
Music floats. From the living room up the stairs to our tiny bedroom
and into my head around and around forever—
I’m sick of it! Aren’t you?
No, says my heart, but my lips do not answer,
do not question as they follow high heels down the stairs—
Don’t put your hands on other people’s wallpaper—
into the kitchen—Don’t open other people’s icebox—
out into the fresh air with Uncle Harvey—Don’t worry,
Jackie, she’ll be O.K. at the museum
with the darkest rooms in the world, tallest statues in the world
with huge googly eyes and teeth like tigers—
You scared? Oh, no—Then I’ll take you to the movies.
Uncle Ken and your Daddy’s coming, too. Let’s go see
the other side of the moon.
After Santa, not happy on Locust Street, Mother left.
Not too sad—I don’t recall friends. Just a piece
On a checkerboard Mother did not play, but deaf
To the pretty piano I missed. Flower pots and trees.
I never dared a museum again ‘til grown.
Maybe Mother was scared or simply cool.
The next place charmed we two alone:
Three rooms and bath, all yellow daffodil!
And out of storage, rescued from the fire,
Mama’s weary, loyal, old brown furniture:
A sofa in velvety upholstery,
One twin royal blue chair, one maroon;
A blue mirror top on a mahogany
Cocktail table with a swivel door that spun
Open for glasses and invisible liquor;
And a Martha Washington rocking chair.
Mother spared this salvaged décor
For years, her soul in storage somewhere?
Merciless in the blood, did it moan?
Heaven on earth she had a right to own.
*Back in the ‘Fifties, there was a pop hit tune about a boll weevil. The refrain implied that this pest destroyed so much cotton because it was looking for a home. It went from field to field, crop to crop. Just looking for a home…
The first poetry editor of two pioneer feminist magazines, Aphra and Ms., the poet Yvonne publishes fiction under her full name Yvonne Chism-Peace. She has received two NEA fellowships for her Iwilla trilogy poems, as well as awards from the Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, Bronx Council on the Arts and Leeway Foundation. Her poetry appears in 161 One-Minute Monologues from Literature, This Sporting Life, Bless Me Father, Catholic Girls, Tangled Vines, An Ear to the Ground, The Third Woman, Celebrations: A New Anthology of Black American Poetry, Pushcart Press Anthology, Ardis Anthology of New American Poetry, and We Become New. Quiet Diamonds (2018) and a forthcoming annual from Bosque Press feature poems from a verse memoir about her youth in Philadelphia where from age five to fourteen, she moved ten times and attended three different parochial schools in predominately White “ethnic” neighborhoods where she was always one of a handful of Blacks. After years in New York, she has returned to one of her old neighborhoods.