Look at these women.
Look at these women. There is a story here. This is my Great Aunt Silla, my Great-Grandmother Sasa, and my Grandmother Cecelia. There is an assertion of grace in this image. It was taken during a time when scientists were speculating that these women had more in common with an ape, than with a human being. There is a message about a way of being encoded in this photograph. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that they are dressed in white even though the roads would have been muddy, and unpaved from here to anywhere they were expected to go. I suspect it has something to do with my grandmothers unruly, natural hair stretched back into that neat bun. The way British women wore their hair. Or something to do with my grandmother’s love for the Queen of England, though she would not have been welcome on the grounds of the Country Club, except as a maid. And I suspect it has something to do with the assertion of poise, that endeavors to betray little of the hardships that would have been their lives, but speaks loudly of the dignity with which they lived it.
The following is the life story of my Great Aunt Silla Rosales. It traces her friendship with my Grandmother Cecelia. Both are daughters, wives; mothers and grandmothers. It spans five generations, including my own.
It was near the end of our interview that day, and Silla had turned the story on me. My Grandmother Cecelia had worried about me back then, she’d said. When I was a child, people always said I looked like my grandmother.
There were two times during any day when I, as a little girl, would sit at my grandmother’s knees. Once a night when we would pray, and once a day when she would comb my hair. At night, just before bed, she would call me into her room and sit me next to her on the edge of the leatherette armchair, and teach me how to pray from her book. It was in large print, its cover wrapped neatly with white paper, the way children’s government textbooks were covered to protect them from carelessness and damage.
“The Salve Regina,” she would say, and we would read aloud.
Hail Holy Queen,
Mother of Mercy,
Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy towards us
And after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb…
I know this prayer by heart. It was my grandmother’s favorite. I only ever hear it in our synchronized voices in my head. We, the banished children of Eve.
During the day, usually at the most inconvenient time for children, prime playing time when my cousins might be outside fighting imaginary wars with stick swords or tumbling out of trees, I would be sat between my grandmother’s knees. It would take at least at hour to comb my hair — it was difficult, thick and unyielding, like her own hair. Lift up your head. Lift up your head. Lift lift lift up. Stop moving. Stop wriggling. Ow ow ow! Lift lift up. Up. Stop pulling.
I was the only one not playing outside, because I was the only one.
"This hard head yuh get from yuh fadda,” she’d said once, “Lift- Lift- Lift up you head!”
My hair was not at all like my mother’s good hair. My Grandmother had married a Chinese man, and brought into this world eight light-skinned, good-haired babies. And they went on to have good haired babies. And then there was me.