Graduation Day – Alana King
Mama called it graduation day, the day that she stopped putting our hair in plaits. It was different for each of us, but whenever Mama decided to put our hair in rollers after washing it was the day we stopped being little girls and graduated into young womanhood.
After taking the clippers to the boys’ heads before bed every Saturday, Mama would pull each one of us girls out of whatever we were doing and wash our hair in the kitchen sink she used to wash other people’s hair in the complex for extra money.
As our hair dried in the bouffant, it was the next oldest’s turn to get their hair washed and so on until Mama made it through the ones of us whose hair she plaited. We sat on the couch watching TV as Mama put the hair rollers into the hair of the girls who had already graduated while their hair was still wet. Then, she would put the good hair oil in our hair that kept it smelling good even after P.E. and playing at recess, part it and plait ours as the older girls’ hair dried.
Genesis was first. She was twelve and going to begin junior high that Tuesday. For months, she begged Mama to let her go to junior high a young woman and Mama finally relented.
Exodus was twelve too, but Mama didn’t have a choice with her. She and Genesis got themselves pregnant the same summer. Genesis was fifteen by then and old enough to have a baby, but Exodus was too young, so Mama took her to see somebody about it.
She came home no longer pregnant and unable to ever eat mustard again, but she came home a young woman.
Genesis’s baby was born two months before I was. I shared a room with my nephew until Genesis moved in with a new boyfriend after she got pregnant again when I was three. After that, I moved into Genesis’s old bedroom with the rest of my sisters and stayed up with Exodus as she still cried night after night about how Mama let Genesis have two babies, but made hers go away.
She got pregnant again when she was sixteen and ran away before Mama found out what was going on, leaving just me, Charity and Patience in the room.
Even after Charity and Patience’s daddy took them to live with him down south, the apartment was still cramped with seven of us. My whole brother and I shared a room then since we were the closest in age, our three half-brothers shared one and Mama and the youngest shared hers.
I’m not sure when they became young women. Next time I saw them, they were married and mothers, plaiting their own daughters’ hair.
After they left, I was the only girl left. Mama took her time washing my hair after that and carefully braided each plait before clasping them with a barrette color of my choice.
That was when Mama and I were the closest we would ever be. I could feel the baby kick sometimes when I rested my head on her stomach as she braided away.
Her latest boyfriend moved in not long before baby number nine, another boy, came. He had a reputation, but by then, Mama needed someone to take care of all of us and he fit the bill well enough.
He talked about marrying her. He talked about adopting all of us. He talked about getting us out of there and into a house once and for all.
But just like all the guys who had come and gone before him, talk was all he did.
He started hitting us when she was still pregnant with baby number ten.
He started hitting the rest of us not long after.
Mama always kept a gun in her purse. Working second shift plus the bus ride home left her walking through our neighborhood close to midnight. She never had it to use it, but just in case she was left no other choice, it was there for her.
When she thought we were old enough, she told us about it, just in case we had no other choice.
So when her boyfriend started in on my little brothers after doing his damage to her, I took her gun out of her purse, just in case.
I fired after he came for me and kept firing until he stopped. I had no other choice.
Even though we took baths youngest to oldest, Mama let me go first that night. As she washed my hair, she made sure to be extra gentle, even though I was the only non-tender headed one out of all of us girls.
She massaged my scalp nice and long, making sure to get all of the blood out.
She cried because now another one of her children would grow up without their father.
I cried because I was the reason why.
I sat between Mama’s legs, waiting for her to part my hair after it finished drying. I waited for her to reach for the hair ties to hold my plaits together. I waited for her to ask me which color barrettes I wanted to wear in my hair for church in the morning.
She never did.
Instead, she reached over for the tin that she kept by the lamp. She combed out my hair into parts and brushed it smooth before rolling each section up to my scalp and clasping it tight.
I remember this as I sit on my couch, plaiting my daughter’s hair. She’s just asked how old I was when my Mama stopped plaiting my hair.
I tell her I wasn’t much older than her when I graduated into hair rollers.
Then she asks me what she has to do to graduate.
I kiss her on the crown of her hair as I begin to braid her first plait, hoping she never has to find out.