by A. Yamina Collins
Pull back the curtain in the village of Lake George, New York, on an afternoon like this one and you will find a young woman lying on her bed in the upstairs room of a two-story house. It is the month of May now, and outside the vernal joy of spring blooms in sharp contrast to the dull and somber mood that fills the woman's soul.
She has been up and about for a few hours today already, but the chores of the morning have worn her out, and now she has lain down again to rest.
Her name is Emmy Hughes, and for a long while she remains on her back, perfectly still, though her eyes now move from the ceiling to the padded back brace propped on a chair across the room.
She wears the brace off and on, depending on her level of pain on a given day, and although she has not minded it much in the past, the coming of the hot season makes her weary of putting it on; with spring soon ending and summer on the horizon, she wants to be rid of the contraption's sweaty embrace altogether.
How often she now recalls all the things she used to complain about while living in New York---the trains she had to wait for, the solicitous remarks men made to her when she walked down the street, and even the cramped space of her old apartment. Those complaints seem so strike her as silly, compared to her present condition!
Not so long ago, she was in perfect health, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with Olana and working at a local animal clinic. Emmy can hardly believe that was only six months ago.
These days, she is like a child again, convalescing under the watchful eye of her father, in the same house where she grew up. There is something humiliating about needing to be taken care of like this (she is twenty-eight years old after all!), yet it would not be so bad if only her mother were still alive.
Sighing, Emmy breathes and sits up. She has been resting for the last two hours and slowly, very carefully, she stands.
Walking is not difficult, but long periods of it are hard, and lifting things always aggravates the pain. Just the other day, for example, she tried moving a box into David's closet to make more space for her aunt in his old room, but one false move gave her a back spasm.
As she rests on the edge of the bed, Emmy's eyes fall on a photograph on her wall; in it, Jeannie Hughes is holding a plump and starry-eyed little Emmy up to the camera.
It is the little things she misses most about her mother: the girlish giggle, the sharp gaze Jeannie gave her children when they displeased her, and even the way she seemed to put cheese on nearly everything she cooked.
But most of all, Emmy misses her mother's protectiveness. She smiles even now when she recalls just how much she was at the center of her concerned attention. As a child, Emmy quickly came to learn why her mother was so guarded and sensitive about the things people said or did to her daughter.
Once, at a local pool, while Emmy sat on a bench in her bathing suit and drank from a bottle of juice, a little blond girl seated next to her turned and said, "Why is your skin is so dark?”
Emmy froze. She was only five years old at the time, but she could sense that the question was filled with both disgust and genuine curiosity. Still, she did not know how to answer the girl, or what to say at all for that matter, and the bottle of juice trembled violently in her hand. Pausing, she looked down at herself and considered her own body in a way she never had before. It was possible that something was wrong her skin color, and she had indeed heard vague whispers before, people saying that her skin was as black as night.
"W---what about it?" Emmy asked nervously.
"Well, don't you mind?" the girl continued. "Aren't you sad your skin is so black?”
Emmy sat in confused silence while the little girl smiled at her. "I mean, you might have been pretty if it weren't so dark. But now you're not very pretty at all, are you?”
Emmy was embarrassed more than angry, and equally ashamed that she did not know if she was pretty. Was she? She supposed now that she wasn't, and to keep from crying she brought the bottle of juice to her quivering lips and stared straight ahead.
In her mind, she thought of running and hiding in the water, of sinking into the cool pool of blue and pretending the conversation never happened. If she floated away or closed her eyes and wished hard enough, she might turn into a fish or a mermaid whose skin color no one ever wondered about.
But Emmy did not budge. She remained stiff in her spot, and only when Jeannie was standing right in front of her, blocking the sun from her view, did Emmy recall that her mother had been sitting just a few rows back on the bleachers, watching Emmy mingle with the other girls. Her ears, apparently, were keen to every conversation Emmy was engaged in.
Clutching her daughter's hand in her own, Jeannie leaned down toward the blond girl and whispered, "And you think you're pretty? Why, you're the ugliest little creature I've ever seen.”
The girl's eyes widened in disbelief, as if it were unfathomable that someone would ever suggest she was not beautiful. But here were the authoritative words of Jeannie Hughes, contradicting her assumptions.
Emmy barely had a chance to be dragged away from the scene before the other girl's mother appeared, with a frightened look in her eyes as she called out, "Victoria, Victoria! Come away from them!”
And that was how the episode ended: with two mothers frantically dragging their daughters away from the corrupting other. Emmy could hear her mother muttering something under her breath as she pulled Emmy along: "Gone tell my daughter she's ugly? I wish she would . . ."
But although Emmy welcomed her mother's rescuing that day, her mind was nonetheless clouded with a sense of unease that had been awakened inside.
This was her first real comprehension that her darkness was actually a problem, a badge of dishonor to the world, and it also began to dawn on her that she did not quite resemble her mother in terms of looks.
"How come I don't look like you?" Emmy finally asked, once they reached the car.
"What do you mean?" Jeannie asked, looking down at her. "We do look alike.”
"No," Emmy disagreed, shaking her head. "Your skin is light. Mine is dark. You're pretty and I'm not.”
Jeannie gasped. "Don't you ever say that again! Do you hear me? Don't you---" It seemed to Emmy that she saw her mother's hands move toward her, as if she meant to take Emmy by the shoulders and shake her.
But instead she took a deep breath and knelt down to Emmy's level. "Sweetheart, you're beautiful just the way you are. Don't you think?”
When Emmy shook her head no, her mother blinked back tears, put Emmy in the car seat, and cried all the way home.
It was only later that night, when Emmy was getting into bed, that her mother seemed ready to speak again, and Jeannie lay down next to her daughter and traced the outline of her face with her fingertips. "Do you know why I married your father, Em?"
Emmy did not understand the question, for she was not of an age where she had ever contemplated why mommies and daddies married each other at all. "No," she answered.
"Well, I loved your daddy, to be sure, but I married him because I wanted chocolate-colored babies." And she smiled when she said this.
"You mean you wanted me to be this color?”
"Of course!" she exclaimed, miffed by the very question. "I was over the moon when you were born. How could I not be? I asked for you. Plus, you had the biggest set of eyes I ever saw. Didn't I ever tell you that? Huge eyes. Oh, I worried you were gonna drown me in those eyes, that's how beautiful you were.”
And so it was, after this, that Emmy begin to consider that if her mother did not mind her color, maybe Emmy should not mind it either.
Jeannie was like a hawk, often on the lookout for unkind words against her little Emmy, yet at the same time, she was not always a woman who shied away from disturbing topics that her daughter might overhear.
One October evening, while Emmy and her brother were in the living room watching It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Emmy went into the kitchen for some juice and found her mother and her aunt Maybelline sitting at the table in some kind of heated exchange.
As Emmy was opening the refrigerator, her mother gestured toward Emmy and said, "You don't think I know how some people will treat her one day? Please, Maybel. But we're here and we're staying. Besides, if I went down south, some black folks might treat her worse.”
"Oh, c'mon now—"
"I'm telling you, Maybel, colorism is the most unaddressed mental-health issue in our community. No one wants to admit it, but it's there---like a disease. And folks got the nerve to say she don't look like me.”
"She couldn't look more like me if she tried, Maybel. People are just color-struck is all.”
Emmy was only seven years old at the time. She got her milk and walked out, aware that she was now considered something that was a "mental-health issue."
She also sensed, for the first time, that her aunt thought the way that Emmy did; that is, Emmy honestly did not look like anyone else in her family. And while for a time, her mother kept insisting this was not true, eventually even Jeannie could not deny the fact. It was true that Emmy had learned character and discipline from her mother and father, but her physical appearance was uniquely her own.
Emmy's lips, for example, were fuller than those of her parents, and heart-shaped; her cheekbones were high and her neck was long, while Jeannie and Martin Hughes had short necks and no cheekbones at all. Emmy's nose was wide at the tip, and it had beautiful length to it, while her mother had a pug nose and her father's nose was wide from top to bottom. Emmy's large, dark brown eyes were shaped differently than theirs, too---hers were almond-shaped, not round or beady like theirs, and her lashes were so long that people often assumed they were fake. "You got 'em naturally," her mother once told her. "I have to go out and buy my lashes."
Meanwhile, Emmy's strong, square chin gave her face a handsomeness that was balanced by more delicate features, whereas her mother had a pointy chin and her father had a round one. The firmness of her jaw gave her an arresting quality, and even her forehead, which was wide and smooth as stone, did not have that rough Hughes look about it that David inherited.
There was an interesting mix of softness and strength to her countenance, and her features were played up by the darkness of her skin, which did not always appear to be regular skin. Under certain light, it had a sparkling sheen to it, like that of diamonds, and as she grew Emmy's looks went from peculiar to pleasant to extraordinary. Even her older brother David, whose skin was light brown and who might have been inspired by his peers and the media to detest his sister's darkness, grew to be in awe of her, for she was breathtaking, and people often gawked at either her beauty or her darkness. Sometimes, in conflict of emotion, they gawked at both.
Jeannie Hughes taught her daughter to dress in clothes that accentuated her color; under Jeannie's watchful eye, Emmy had a wardrobe full of brightly colored clothes---yellows, greens, purples and oranges; they were lovely materials, simple but feminine, and they made the intensity of her skin all the more startling.
Soon, however, it wasn't just Emmy's looks that were strangely at odds with those of her parents and her brother, but her height as well. By the time she was fourteen, Emmy had blossomed into something the family had not expected. Her father was only five-foot-six, her mother five-three, and her brother managed to reach five-seven, while Emmy had reached the staggering height of exactly six feet tall.
Certain relatives began to gossip that Emmy could not possibly be the daughter of Martin Hughes, but her determined father put a stop to such talk right away. He showed Emmy, and anyone who cared to see, a picture of Emmy's great-great-grandmother on his side of the family: Hattie Oakley had been a dark woman with a gorgeous face and a height that loomed well above most men of her time. Strangely, Emmy was almost the spitting image of her. To Martin Hughes, it seemed as if all of Hattie Oakley's looks had skipped three generations and willed themselves entirely into Emmy's lengthy body.
It was a body that belonged to a dancer. Both the movement of her long arms and the gait of her walk were graceful and easy, so that there was something soft and willowy about the way she moved---as if she were floating on her heels rather than standing on them.
Emmy Somali Hughes became a tall, black swan, lithe and graceful among a family of short, chunky ducks.
Perhaps it was the extraordinariness of her looks that encouraged her to sometimes regress into her imagination as she grew older. She had become quietly confident about her appearance, and because her head was so often in a book somewhere, Emmy liked to imagine herself a princess, in some other world.
Jeannie Hughes would have preferred her daughter improve her mind with more serious subjects. But she also reasoned that a child had a right to dream, and maybe the fact that Emmy could spend entire afternoons with a book in her lap was a good thing. After all, Jeannie's son David was far too gregarious for his own good, so it was nice to have one child who did not mind being at home.
But at other moments, Jeannie Hughes had a hard time embracing her daughter's love of the fantastical, and she was especially displeased when Emmy, at age fourteen, saw the movie The Fellowship of the Ring, and got it in her head that she wanted her hair to look like that of Kate Blanchett's Galadriel---her Elf idol.
Partly it was the movie that transfixed Emmy, and partly it was the fact that she had grown tired of standing out. She felt that she was often too much for too many people: she was too tall, too dark, too brightly dressed---she wanted, during high school especially, to blend in a bit more, especially since her hair, much like her body, just kept growing and growing and growing.
Why shouldn't she have something in common with her classmates, Emmy soon reasoned. All of her friends had straight hair and most of it was of a lighter hue, so why shouldn't she?
Emmy's own hair had always been natural and kept at shoulder length, but it was big hair that had a mind of its own and it stood up all over her head in a big puffy afro. Sometimes the taunts about her hair were worse than the comments about her skin.
It was called dirty and messy, and she was nicknamed Nappy Emmy and Kinky Emmy. Some folks insisted that it looked like a rat's nest sat upon her head, even though it was always clean and styled to her and her mother's liking. Jeannie was even in the habit of placing decorative pins and bows in it.
But Emmy saw that her hair was still foreign to everyone she grew up with, and she began pulling it back into a bun so as not to distract people or stir up their ire.
When she did this, the taunts became fewer and fewer and she realized that if she relaxed her hair she might really fit in.
But relaxers were not allowed into the Hughes house.
Emmy was miffed. She was fourteen now and a new streak of independence had emerged in her, giving her the desire and (she felt) the right to experiment. She was certain she wanted long, straight, blond hair flowing down her back, and one afternoon she demanded it from her mother.
Jeannie Hughes was standing at the sink cutting up carrots and apples for a salad when Emmy cornered her and made her intentions known.
"You can blow it out," was how her mother responded, not turning around to face the girl.
Emmy practically stomped her feet. "I want it relaxed.”
"Wear a wig.”
"You wear a wig.”
Her mother now turned to face her, getting that heated look in her eyes that always gave her children pause. "Excuse me?"
Emmy took a step backwards. "I---," she reconsidered her tactic. "I want to use my own hair.”
"Those chemicals can melt a soda can, Em. And you're telling me you want that mess on your head?"
"I don't care.”
"Well, I do!" her mother finally shouted, slamming the knife she was holding down onto the counter. "And this is the end of the conversation. Got it?”
Quietly, Emmy cursed her mother under her breath, forgetting that Jeannie Hughes, like most mothers, had a special way of seemingly hearing through walls.
So when dinnertime came and her father and brother got juicy steak for their meals along with a healthy green salad with carrots, radishes, onions, apples and candied walnuts, Emmy got a bloody, half-cooked steak and a salad peppered with bits of paper, plastic bottle caps and dirt.
"What's this?" Emmy cried out.
Jeannie methodically tapped her fork against the table and eyed her daughter vehemently. "Since you insist on putting garbage on your hair, I say, why not have in your food, too?”
Emmy looked to her father to talk some sense into his wife, but Martin Hughes met Emmy's gaze head-on and shook his head. "I'm not backing you on this one.”
Emmy never asked about a relaxer again.
And now today, she laughs about it, and thinks back on her mother with a fondness that makes her heart ache. Every little thing Emmy did to hurt that woman, intentional or not, fills her with a deep regret.
"You always tried your best, didn't you?" Emmy asks, looking one last time at the photograph, then turning her gaze away from it.
Even in its heaviness, she knows that life must go on, and she walks to her door, passes out of it, into the hallway, and makes her way to the stairs.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock
A graduate of New York University, she lives in Manhattan and currently blogs at Yaminatoday.com. Her dream as an author is to help create new images of major African-American characters in literature.