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Toi Derricotte | Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing

My mother was not impressed with her beauty;

once a year she put it on like a costume,

plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,

in one rope-thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,

and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,

with tortoise pins, like huge insects,

some belonging to her dead mother,

some to my living grandmother.

Sitting on the stool at the mirror,

she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her,

as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless it was weighted and bound in its mask.

Vaseline shined her eyebrows,

mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;

her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.


Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even then were old from scrubbing,

whiter on the inside than they should have been,

and hard, the first joints of her fingers, little fattened pads,

the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens,

painted a jolly color.

Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away, prayed

for the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.

And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her

pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify

every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside.


But once a year my mother

rose in her white silk slip,

not the slave of the house, the woman,

took the ironed dress from the hanger—

allowing me to stand on the bed, so that

my face looked directly into her face,

and hold the garment away from her

as she pulled it down.

Toi Derricotte, “Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing” from Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

Toi Derricotte (African American Registry)

13 comments on “Toi Derricotte | Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing

  1. Lisa Zimmerman
    December 25, 2022

    I love this poem of hers❤️


  2. Rose Mary Boehm
    December 24, 2022

    A moving and gorgeous poem. Thank you.


  3. giulio2711
    December 24, 2022

    Toi is an artist I rely on to see, but with the beauty and texture of this beloved memory. She not only brings these images to us, but encourages through her work to breathe the lovely memories many of us need today.


    • Vox Populi
      December 24, 2022

      Thanks Giulio! Merry christmas!


    • J. Zheng
      December 24, 2022

      A wonderful poem for the day and for the delight of reading.


  4. Barbara Huntington
    December 24, 2022

    What a perfect picture. Thank you.


  5. Sean Sexton
    December 24, 2022

    Wonderful poem!
    May the great matriarchies of human kind be our ever and ongoing sustenance, for they are the actuarial and most sacred salvation of the world whether by pure translation of the principles love through their lives or the inviolable and life-redeeming qualities of feminine energy to all creation. That is the crux of this blessed poem!


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