Today I remembered Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” and thought I would write a stream-of-consciousness little something to Free. The prompt is to write something to someone that you want them to know but that you would never actually say to them. Here it is:
This is the way I peel potatoes, like this, with the small knife in my right hand, that’s my dominant hand, and that means I use this hand the most to do tricky or important things, like writing or pointing or peeling. With my right hand, I pull the knife down the side of the potato, which I hold in my left hand, and I turn the potato towards the knife as I go, as if it wants to be sliced, as if it is reaching to be kissed by the sharp silver blade that will slice it clean and raw. My right thumb rests on the potato too, always dancing its way toward danger as the knife moves down and slices too much of the potato away with the peel.
This is not the way you are supposed to peel potatoes. Most people use a peeler, first of all, and they point it away from themselves, which is very smart and the right thing to do, and there is only one hand on the potato and one hand on the peeler, and if you do this, I will breathe easier and not hover over you, hawk-like, watching and praying you don’t kill yourself with a knife I handed over to you to peel the potatoes.
But if you do end up peeling like I do, with the small knife, the one that has been in the drawer longer than the other knives and is not quite so sharp, the one that is only used for peeling or sometimes for slicing cheese and apple slices; if you do end up peeling this way–slowly and with too much force at first but then more quickly as you gain practice–then I will secretly be pleased, because it will mean you learned to do it as I do, in the same way that I learned, by watching your mother and doing as she does, without need for words or ways of learning beyond the watching.
This is the way I hang the laundry on the line, only I think it is the “washing” and not the laundry when I do it this way. I take my delicates, my silky undies and cashmere sweaters, or things I wear and wash too much and want to last, like sports-bras, and instead of tossing them unthinkingly in the dryer, I throw them in a basket and carry them outside to the line that is stretched across the backyard between two trees. Here is where I set my basket down and remember the big steel tub my mother carried outside every week for years and years, heavy with the family’s wet washing. Thirty years away, I still see her lean down and pick pieces out one at a time, one peg always working hard to hold the ends of two pieces up. I pinch the top of each peg together and then reach up, folding the edges of a shirt over the line and staking it just so, shaking a dress’s wrinkles out before stretching its shoulders wide.
This is the way I turn and see you watching me, your nine year old eyes on me like mine were on her, only now I recognize both yours and mine as if I never did before, as if they are the same sets of eyes mirrored, unaware, gazing blankly at something they have seen before, at something that is to be taken for granted until many decades later, when it is finally understood, perhaps for the first time.
This is how I open my arms, wide as the stretch of a clothesline, strong as the pins that grasp it. This is how I reach out my hands to you, knuckled and raw and soft and grasping, eager and easy at the same time.
This is how, when you come to me–curly and handsome and rough in your still childish yet rapidly growing reach–you find me, open and aware, seeing you in me in her in us in you in me again. This is how I know who I am, in the way you hold me and seek to be held, and in my memories of her arms, holding me then as with each word and breath that continue to hold me now.
This is how I become my mother and also become myself, become someone who lives and works and loves, in ways that I have watched, in ways that are so familiar as to be routine, in ways that bring me back to myself, to her, and to you.
This is how I return.
This is how I expand.
This is how I will look for myself, if I ever start to lose myself.
And this is how, perhaps, I may hope to see myself, one day, thirty years from now, in you.