Like Momma by Lonette Stayton

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church steeple with cross on top against sky

It’s Sunday morning and Momma is getting me ready for Sunday school. I’m on one of the yellow vinyl kitchen chairs holding my right ear, praying to God that Momma doesn’t burn me with the pressing comb. I flinch every time the hot comb comes too close to my scalp. I wanna perm so I can wear my hair down like the older girls in middle school, but Momma says an eight-year-old has no business with grown folks’ hair. I want hair like Momma’s. Big and fluffy, it looks like one of the clouds that floats across the sky. It takes up all the space around her head, all the space in the room.

“Dee, get ready to take Nikki up here to the church! She’s gonna be ready in a minute!”

I’m the only one attending church this morning. Erika, my little sister, sometimes goes to Sunday school with me. Momma’s church is a stereo blaring Rev. Al Green and Aretha Franklin. Sometimes she sings along, closing her eyes and swaying to the music. Daddy never has church even though Pop, his daddy, taught me how to pray. We kneel side by side, the bed step-stool bringing me almost to Pop’s eye level. We make a church steeple with our hands and we recite together, “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Daddy strolls into the kitchen and smiles at me. “So you’re going to church again this Sunday, huh?”

I beam and swing my legs back and forth under the chair. “Yep! I like Sunday school.” I asked to go to Sunday school and learn about the Lord who will take care of me if I died in my sleep. Even though Momma and Daddy didn’t care to go, they made sure to take me whenever I asked. “Ouch, Momma!” The evil pressing comb kisses my ear. Tears well and the smell of burnt hair fills the room.

“Baby, I’m sorry, but you got to keep still.”

I try not to complain too much. Momma said her momma, Granny, never had time to press her hair or make her look good for school. She said they were too po’ and Granny was too tired to do their hair. Kids made fun of her. All the time. Whenever Momma talks like that, I get this weird feeling in my stomach, like something is too tight and won’t let go. I can’t imagine my Momma as anything but beautiful. If I was eight years old when she was eight years old, I would be her friend and fight those bullies who made fun of her. I would protect her. But that was a long time ago, and all I have is the funny feeling inside of me.

“O.K., go get dressed. And don’t go to Big People’s church. Your daddy will be out there to pick you up after Sunday school. O.K.?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

My prayer today will be that I’ll grow up to look just like Momma.

lonette staytonLonette Stayton is an MFA student at the University of Memphis where she is working on her thesis, Fractured Self: A Life in Snapshots. She plans to graduate in the spring of 2014. Her middle school students’ passion for writing inspires her everyday.

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