I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.
On occasion, I imagine myself as a woman of wisdom and means. I am 56 or 64 or 73 and several ebony strands still assert themselves in my cirrocumulous hair. During my nightly constitutional, I pretend I live near the Ganges. I imagine myself standing open-palmed under Victoria Falls. I let my mind drift to places eternities away from where I’ve settled. Gauzy, hand-dyed fabrics drape my body; the wind whips through them and I feel at peace with a fast-approaching future wherein I, too, will exist as little more than wind, whipping though another woman’s sails.
In my pockets, there are many keys.
I live without regret, save for a mild but persistent pining for days long past. Youth, as is often said, is useless to the young. I do not wish to see this foregone squandering in you.
When you visit, we curl into the hammock on my screened porch, tittering like sandbox girls as we teeter. I allow you this levity, this feathery love that daughters so seldom get to feel with their worried mothers. Then, I pull you close, two thin and veiny fingers ’round your wrist, like a cuff, like the strong arm of law, meant to warn you: This is serious. I look at you, curled and soft as a mollusk—at 27 or 35 or 44—and your face has made strides toward solace, awareness and confidence that mine did not, until I was much older. But there is still the residue of self-questioning there, an uncertainty skulking along the brow, a sadness in the sanguine rim of the eye.
These are unfortunate inheritances.
I tell you first that I wish you had taken the part of me that is feral. I wish that after all these years it no longer made sense to hide the wildness inside us, that our culture had come to terms with the ferocity women must hold onto in order to survive. I wish it were freeing, rather than ignominious to lay oneself bare in the open. I wish that, for us, there were no triple consciousness, no necessary switching of codes for white, for black, for patriarchy.
But this will never be so. There are too many men who siphon power by depleting ours. It is too tempting to spend scarce and precious time convincing them that, though society often seems a soundproof room, we have voices. They echoing in corners, through caverns: We deserve… We deserve… We deserve…
But stalactites have no ears, and we winnow centuries at this war.
The hour is late. And the light of your youth has grown dim. Have you listened to the men, to your father, to me, to everyone who’s admonished you to, “Be a good girl?” Oh, how I wish you hadn’t, I lament, lifting your chin.
We always expect more for our daughters than for ourselves.
I tell you to dive and note the beauty of the bottom. I urge you to annually step into the baskets of hot air balloons and remind yourself how small it all seems when you’re soaring. I implore you to marry the man who compels you, whose interests swim in synchrony with your own, who hears you, understands you are not a caged thing. Tell him, “This lioness has no need for taming.” Tell him, “If I am to answer to you, then we are to answer to each other.”
For the sake of your God and your country, do not accept the hand of the man who prefers you porcelain and pirouetting in a music box of his making. You will find yourself pining for days long past, imagining the Ganges, the Falls.
When I am gone, I whisper, I will leave you all the keys in my pockets. I will leave you the possibilities beyond each door.
You whisper, In the meantime, just use them. Mother, you were meant for much more.