Miss Rosier, who was childless, had us bow our heads to our fifth-grade desks on the appointed day, as though for prayer. She slowly ran the side of a pencil from the nape of each neck to the top of each head. We tried not to shiver as the pencil slipped slowly up our skulls. And if, later, a name was called over the intercom, we knew they had it. They’d be shaved bald; they’d sit alone, smelling of lime and chemical, on the school bus that cut through our small mountain town to deliver us home. Once, a girl was called and she quietly left the classroom with her jacket tied around her waist, her fate sealed. But I found out later she didn’t have lice, only needed a maxi pad from the school nurse because she’d gotten her first period, and I didn’t see why she had to be called over the intercom as though it were cause for alarm. I didn’t see why there couldn’t be a cute closet for Kotex in each classroom, amply supplied for shame-free access. I didn’t see why, when my friend told me years later, it was unlawful to buy tampons with food stamps, though she said a woman named Lena who owned a corner store by the tracks had let her do so. My friend and I, perhaps because of these specific memories, always get on board for the tampon drive at the Parish House. The boy at the Walmart register must think I’m hemorrhaging as he scans my packages of Always and Tampax. Look at this blue and pink arsenal, I want to say to him, think of the semiotics of feminine hygiene products, their shifting meanings. A tampon can signify relief, after that one unprotected night, and, later, grief, the child you wanted once again not materializing. Your childlessness takes your breath in the middle of the night as you overspill your pad and bleed onto the sheets and learn a new shame and hold up your useless hands, like iridescent frog hands outspread in the dark, thinking: For whom will these hands, like my mother’s hands, disappear into the bread bowl and reappear, kneading the punched-down dough, knuckles flaked in flour even though wiped on the tea towel before it covers the bowl of rising dough? For whom will these hands, like my mother’s, fold pepperoni into pinched-off segments of store-bought dough, and brush the hot hair away from the face to reveal—out there—the river, the bend, the mist filtering off it, the cobble bar and stones to be held in little hands, and this—the tail feather of a heron? Whose small body will I bathe as my mother bathed mine and filled the Pizza Hut cup to spill over my sudsy hair? But the body, the hands, all shift in meaning, too, since today my mother, in the absence of children, bathes her mother with hospice hands in an atmosphere of multiplied life, years hanging spectral in wavery scenes. Though we don’t discuss it, I suppose soon my mother will not have a mother, but is that fully true? Will she be motherless in the same way I am childless, the absence born of loss no different from that born of unrealized life? Are these even the right questions since my mother’s hands will only and always find another to touch and bathe and wipe the hot hair from so the remarkable river mist smoking off the box elders is in full view of the blinking eyes? We cannot be less than we are, less a mother, less a child—but maybe we can be more than we are named. And if our hands reach to touch and do touch, so gently, another, it’s as if a new meaning congeals with each moment of contact, a new nameless form of relation fused between two that were once strangers, as even my mother and I once were, at the very start. In this, I begin to see a way opening before us. Come to think of it, how could I have said my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Rosier, was childless when, during the mandatory check, I felt her present hand at my neck parting my long hair as though parting fine feathers, sifting through the strands with the dull pencil lead for any sign of tiny white parasite, each soft stroke of the pencil like a blessing whispered over me—me, her child, knowing her mercies?
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