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Unlocking Mother by Del Sandeen

The castoff locs lie the casket next to the woman’s body like a lover. They look almost forlorn, as if wondering why they were beside the woman and no longer crowning her head. Mourners passed by and once in a while, a hand would reach out and graze the locs with no fear before withdrawing.

The woman in the casket is my mother. Those are her three-foot long locs lying beside her. I’m the one who cut them off her head when she was dying.

It seems crazy to me now to remember how I thought of my mother’s hair when she told me she had cancer. Before I spoke one word, before wondering about the chemo, I reached out; my hands felt like they were reaching across a vista. I wrapped my fingers around a dozen or more ropes and held them like they contained all the unanswered questions of the world.

I cried thinking about them.

“I want you to cut them off,” she said and it was like hearing “Cut off my arm.”

“Why?” I asked even as she pressed the scissors into my protesting hand.

“No need in holding onto them anymore.” A quiet settled between us, stubborn and unyielding, like a heavy body.

“Where should I start?” I finally asked, cutting the quiet like I would soon cut her hair. With resignation.

“Doesn’t matter. And hurry up,” she said, her eyes closed to me, a bit of impatient crossness in her voice. Then, softer, “I don’t want to change my mind.”

With each snip, I felt the task was made more difficult by the thick unwillingness of each loc to be cut. Every snap of the scissors closing was a harsh rasping in my ears. When I finished, she didn’t ask to look in a mirror.

“You need to go to a barber and get it shaped up,” I said, hated scissors still in my hand.

She ran a hand over her bare head and smiled. “I feel so light,” she said. But I don’t, I wanted to say. I felt like I’d just killed someone. The locs lay in a mournful heap around our feet and I imagined that if they could, they’d weep.

“Don’t be sad, Olivia. It’s just another step in my journey. And another step in yours, too,” she said.

I didn’t want to go on this trip. She became lighter. And I became heavier.

“You are a good daughter,” she’d said to me so many times. To know I was facing a future never hearing those five words again brought an emptiness that was crushing. So much pain from something no longer there.

Near the end, when she lay in the bed with fuzzy, inch-long hair surrounding her face like a gray halo, I would stare at her while she slept. It was difficult reconciling this thin, transparent woman with the strong, energetic one who’d raised me. Who are you? I wanted to ask. When I placed my hand upon her cold one, mine felt monstrous and huge next to the pricked skin of hers. Her coloring was no longer the deep brown of rich earth, but held an undercurrent of grayness, of ashy sickness.

Why? I asked her God, my God. Why must you take her? I took the silence as a personal affront, a direct blow.

“What is so dreadful about my hair that someone would call it dreadlocks?” She’d asked me that once and I’d felt slightly ashamed. I’d told her that some friends of mine had been making fun of me, of her. No one else’s mom had locs; everyone else did the fashionable thing of wearing relaxed hair in the latest styles. Some of my friends’ moms seemed to think my mother had lost it after the divorce. Why else would she stop combing her hair and begin to wear it in long ropes about her beautiful face?

“This is how God made my hair and how he made theirs, too. They would know that if they’d stop frying their hair,” she said. “You go tell them that.”

Of course, I didn’t tell my friends that. I straightened my own hair, although my mother hated it.

“You used to straighten yours, too, you know,” I said. “Don’t remind me. That was when I was an oppressed slave to society’s idea of what’s beautiful.”

I shook my then seventeen year-old head. After Daddy left, she took to saying stuff like this and it wasn’t until years later that I tried to understand her.

“So what am I supposed to call your…hairstyle?”

“Just locs. Locs of hair.” Later, after natural hair became vogue again and some people knew the power it held, and others just jumped on the latest bandwagon, I realized what a visionary she’d been.

She never complained. As I sat in the sterile hospital room, sweater wrapped tightly around my shivering body and watched the nurse prod my mother like a branded cow, sometimes I looked away. Other times, I stared defiantly.

“You’re hurting her,” I said once when the nurse couldn’t find a vein and she kept poking and sticking. The nurse ignored me and when I looked for support from my mother, I saw her heavy-lidded eyes were closed to the both of us.

After the nurse left, my mother’s voice drifted across the room, tickling my ears like a dragonfly’s wings. “You’re a good daughter. So concerned.” A vapory smile sat on her lips.

“I hate to see them sticking you like that all the time. It’s painful.”

“It won’t be much longer.”

“Don’t say that.” I could feel the tears, always waiting, forming a line.

“Olivia, you’re going to have to be strong. For my sake, please. For everybody. For your daddy, too.”

Daddy. I hadn’t given him much consideration during Mother’s last days. I felt like I could only focus on one thing at a time and she was the nucleus of everything; he would just have to stand back and wait his turn. When they divorced, I was fifteen. “Finally,” was all Mother said. She’d stuck it out because of me. She never said so, but I gathered the information on my own, stolen bits and pieces from her sisters, his sister. Mother had been hurt by him and my allegiance was to her. I felt I had to protect her from him, from other men, from anyone who wanted to hurt her. So I placed a wall around the two of us and even Daddy wasn’t allowed in.

He began to come by the hospital, shyly. At first, I was very cold toward him, impersonal, almost rude at times. He never said anything about it, about my nastiness. Perhaps a part of him felt it was deserved. Anyway, we never discussed it.

Once, he asked to speak to my mother alone, so I waited outside of her room. Through the slatted blinds in her window, I watched, like a thief watching someone else’s dream. He was so stiff, first standing at the foot of her bed, not daring to go nearer. Later, when I glanced in again, he was next to her, very close. Then she reached out and took his hand. It was forgiveness she gave him. He cried.

“You have to forgive your daddy,” my mother said. I was quiet, knowing this was coming, but waiting for her to bring it. I sat and stared out of the window, knowing every parking space and rooftop rock by now. Six floors up we were, sixty feet closer to heaven.

“I’ll forgive him,” I said.

“Before I go.”

I hung my head, a brief spark of anger shooting her way for bringing it up again. I know you’re dying, I felt like screaming, do you have to remind me all the time?

“Before you go,” was what I said.

I talk to her sisters. One of them looks so much like my mother, I can barely stand to look at her when we talk. It’s too jarring to do, so I look at my other aunt and my mother’s near-twin doesn’t mind.

“Livvy,” the older one says, using that name only she was allowed to use, “it’s gonna be all right. You’ll see.” She pats my hand. “She loves you so much, you know,” Near-twin says. “She’s going to miss you just as much as you’re going to miss her. But she’s always going to be with you. In us, in your daddy, in yourself. So long as you live, you’ll have a piece of your mother with you.”

Again, the tears. Why did they have to say things like that? I cried so much, I hoped everything would dry up. They held me, not seeming to mind the mess I was making of their clothes, their skin. They held me like I was their own good daughter.

Was I glad later I’d cut her hair when the chemo left her nearly bald? Soft gray patches of cotton adorned her head, but she never hid under scarves or hats. She said it was all a part of her, of who she was, and whoever loved her would have to love her like that, bald, skinny, and everything.

“I want you to let go,” she whispered and it was the last thing she said to me. Let go of what? I wondered. Of her? Of my anger? Of my grief? What? She never answered.

Those last days, I got through by not thinking. I just kept busy, busy cooking, busy cleaning, and busy making arrangements. Daddy wanted to help, but I wouldn’t let him.

“It’s all right between us,” I told him, so that he wouldn’t think I was still angry.

He was grateful, but I had no time for his gratitude.

Her sisters stayed with her a lot so that I could tend to the business end of it all. How does one make a business of death, I’d wondered before, but living through it made it all clear to me. She slept a lot those last few days and there came a time when I longed for it to be over. Just take her, I prayed to her God. Just let her be at peace.

When she opened her eyes for the last time, those large eyes in the skinny face making her look like a baby animal, I knew she was too weak to speak. My aunts hovered around like lost children. She smiled; I smiled back, trying not to cry again and wet her face. Then those eyes closed and I was thankful.

I miss those locs of hers. I don’t watch the casket lid close, I don’t watch the box lowered into the ground and I don’t stick around to see the men toss dirt over her like she was something less than special, someone who shouldn’t be in the ground but be raised above it. I only hold one loc in my hand, one I kept after the cutting, one which I’ll take home and place somewhere special and safe. When I unlocked her, she became free and although I didn’t know it then, she set me free with her.

After the funeral, everyone went back to my aunt’s house. It was too loud for me, so I stood in the backyard, winter wind preventing anyone from joining me. I stood without a coat, so I thought I heard a few whispers of “Someone take Olivia a coat” or “She’s gonna freeze out there.” No one came, though. I took a perverse pleasure in standing there like that, obstinate and falsely brave. I looked to the sky, but saw no signs of my mother. Are you up there? Will I ever see you again?

“Olivia,” a voice said. I jumped, then relaxed (and felt stupid) when I saw it was only Daddy. He put an arm around my shoulders and I let him. I didn’t fight him, but just stood in his hold like we’d never been apart.

“Maybe you don’t think I miss her as much as you do, but I do miss her,” he said. I know he does; I know he’s sorry for all the years we didn’t have together. And I want to honor my mother’s memory in letting go of it all.

“She told me to let go,” I told him.

“Let go of what?” he asked after a moment.

“Of everything, Daddy. Of everything.”

I don’t know if he understood, but it didn’t matter. Maybe he’d understand later; even if he never did, I did what she’d asked of me. I kissed him on the cheek, cold lips on scratchy skin, and went into the house. Looking back, I saw him standing there, looking into the sky, as if to see her one last time. She’s not there, I wanted to say. She’s not in that one place you’re looking; she’s everywhere and everything.

The single loc sits in a box, a mahogany box specially made with scarlet satin inside. The loc is coiled like a gray python. I look at it sometimes and try not to think that it’s nothing more than dead protein. It holds a life to me. So I look at it, sometimes touch a finger to its coarse softness, and think of her. This loc would probably love to still be on her head, I think, but I’m glad it’s not. I’m glad I unlocked her and am able to hold onto one piece. It’s not much, but just enough.

Years after my mother died, I started my own baby locs. They’re tiny, no more than an inch long and they’re rebellious and strong. They grow their own way and do what they want. I cultivate them like a farmer tends to his beloved garden. My hair is black and wiry, each kink fighting to be heard. As the locs grow and begin to hang, I enjoy the feel of them against my cheek when I shake my head, the way they fall on the back of my neck when I throw my head back to laugh. Later, I love the way they graze my shoulders and when I look in the mirror, I’m always struck by how much I now look like my mother. My aunts and Daddy remark on it, too. I look more like her now than her near-twin does because my aunt has short hair. My locs are thick like ropes on ships; they could pull the world, I like to think.

When my locs were hanging down my back and I sometimes sat on them, I took the mahogany box to the cemetery. Lying down in front of the tombstone, I dug a small hole and laid the box in it and covered it, patting the dirt with my hands.

“I’m returning this last one to you,” I said to the stone (Roberta Bailey, 1942-1999, Beloved Mother and Sister). “I don’t need it anymore.”

I hoped she was happy to have that last piece back to herself.

About the Author

Del Sandeen is a freelance writer who lives in sunny Florida with her husband and three children. She is currently seeking a publisher for her debut novel.

Misty Ericson
Misty Ericson holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature from San Jose State University, California, and an MA History of Art from University of Leeds, UK. In addition to her work on HerCircleEzine.com, which she founded in 2005, Misty enjoys painting in her studio and restoring her home in the English countryside.
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