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October 2013, vol 8, no 3

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Ferris Gilli

The Color of Nurture

My memory of Bill does not fade. I hear her song, see the tiny droplets of sweat across the bridge of her nose. I breathe in the familiar, pleasing scent of her pomade, feel the solid assurance of her embrace.

I am very small and to me Bill is a mountain of a woman, a comfortable, sweet-smelling, sweet-tempered woman with skin the color of sunlit mahogany. She rocks me to sleep when I cry, I rise and fall with her great breasts as she sings. She hides me behind her skirt when I've been up to mischief. "This child didn't mean any harm, she was only playin'. Go on now, I'll see to her." Yet so easily she sets me straight when I need it: "Baby, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. You know better than that."

When asked by someone to name the members of my family, I include Bill. By what sign would I know that she is not? I am only three; my world is rose-colored. Bill is the first of such champions who teach me with goodness and stalwart grace. By their example, they inform the fibers of my nature, my very soul. Different ages, sizes, and hues—in turn they become part of me.

woven through my childhood
in various shades of brown
those warm-skinned women
yearning for freedom
who loved me anyway

June is the last of them to mold me. She has my heart from the moment we meet. With no siblings of my own, I think of her as a big sister. My elder by only nine years, she calls me, "My baby." I tease her about snakes, her phobia. Already the vessel of my secrets, she reciprocates with spiders. She can hardly get her work done with my hovering, talking, aggravating. When she is making up a bed, I jump beneath the covers: "Make me up in the bed, June! Act like you don't see me!" She does, then pretends surprise at the lumps under the spread, patting all around, guessing what they could be. I kick off the covers and leap out. "Look! It's me!" Her patience is infinite.

June's outward beauty reflects her spirit. She lets me touch her hair and stroke her arms, she folds her smooth hands over my small, chapped ones. We discuss similarities and differences. She serenely answers my timid curiosity. "Yes, baby, I can get sunburned." When I'm ten, I insist I'm old enough to shave my legs and she must show me how. She refuses. I tell her I'll do it anyway, and she warns me about the bony parts. Hell bent, I fetch Daddy's razor and sit on the back stoop in the noon sun. When I'm done, we stare at the flecks of blood up and down my shins.

I wait for June every afternoon after school. She moves easily into whatever role I need: disciplinarian, jokester, confidant, comforter. She is there for my first boyfriend, my first heartbreak. She mentions that she may leave town one day, but I won't acknowledge it. By the time she finishes high school and moves away, our friendship is deeply rooted. Over the years there are letters, birthday cards; marriages, divorces, remarriage, children, grandchildren. I sometimes live in foreign lands. Only once do we meet again in person.

Twice we lose touch, this time for over ten years, my fault. She would be seventy-eight this month. I'm suddenly burning with fear and guilt, the realization that I may have lost her for good. No phone number to be found, I send a card to June's old address, begging to hear from her if she gets it.

The phone rings today, from an unfamiliar number. I answer and hear a slow, sweet voice: "Hello, my baby."

mourning doves call
from the fragrant grass
as if I’d never left
the bright fields of my youth
enfold me in springtime