I only knew my mother from the picture on the night table by Tante Atie's pillow. She waved from inside the frame with a wide grin on her face and a large flower in her hair. She witnessed everything that went on in the bougainvillea, each step, each stumble, each hug and kiss. She saw us when we got up, when we went to sleep, when we laughed, when we got upset at each other. Her expression never changed. Her grin never went away.
I sometimes saw my mother in my dreams. She would chase me through a field of wildflowers as tall as the sky. When she caught me, she would try to squeeze me into the small frame so I could be in the picture with her. I would scream and scream until my voice gave out, then Tante Atie would come and save me from her grasp.
I slipped the card back in my pocket and got up to go inside. Tante Atie lowered her head and covered her face with her hands. Her fingers muffled her voice as she spoke.
"When I am done feeling bad, I will come in and we will find you a very nice envelope for your card. Maybe it will get to your mother after the fact, but she will welcome it because it will come directly from you."
"It is your card," I insisted.
"It is for a mother, your mother." She motioned me away with a wave of her hand. "When it is Aunt's Day, you can make me one."
"Will you let me read it to you?"
"It is not for me to hear, my angel. It is for your mother."
I put the card back in my pocket, plucked out the flower, and dropped it under my shoes.
Across the road, the children were yelling each other's names, inviting passing friends to join them. They sat in a circle and shot the crackling leaves high above their heads. The leaves landed on their faces and clung to their hair. It was almost as though they were caught in a rain of daffodils.
I continued to watch the children as Tante Atie prepared what she was bringing to the potluck. She put the last touches on a large tray of sweet potato pudding that filled the whole house with its molasses scent.
As soon as the sun set, lamps were lit all over our quarter. The smaller children sat playing marbles near whatever light they could find. The older boys huddled in small groups near the school yard fence as they chatted over their books. The girls formed circles around their grandmothers' feet, learning to sew.
Tante Atie had promised that in another year or so she would teach me how to sew.
"You should not stare," she said as we passed a near-sighted old woman whispering mystical secrets of needle and thread to a little girl. The girl was squinting as her eyes dashed back and forth to keep up with the movements of her grandmother's old fingers.
"Can I start sewing soon?" I asked Tante Atie.
"Soon as I have a little time," she said.
She put her hand on my shoulder and bent down to kiss my cheek.
"Is something troubling you?" I asked.
"Don't let my troubles upset you," she said.
"When I made the card, I thought it would make you happy. I did not mean to make you sad."
"You have never done anything to make me sad," she said. "That is why this whole thing is going to be so hard."
A cool evening breeze circled the dust around our feet.
"You should put on your blouse with the long sleeves," she said. "So you don't catch cold."
I wanted to ask her what was going to be so hard, but she pressed her finger over my lips and pointed towards the house.
She said "Go" and so I went.
One by one the men began to file out of their houses. Some carried plantains, others large Negro yams, which made your body itch if you touched them raw. There were no men in Tante Atie's and my house so we carried the food ourselves to the yard where the children had been playing.
The women entered the yard with tins of steaming ginger tea and baskets of cassava bread. Tante Atie and I sat near the gate, she behind the women and me behind the girls.
Excerpted from Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat Copyright © 1998 by Edwidge Danticat. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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