Mother's Knees

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Mother’s knees, they were misshapen by the lumps and scars of a lifetime.

There she sat, unaware of the lens, skirt pulled high to defy the wet Eastern heat that dampened doting offspring. The edema of unspoken words and fateful adventures swelled her joints and crippled her sidestep, yet still she twirled to the rhythms of her youth. Although achingly unsure in her final years, those knees had long served her well.

They held her aloft when she was barely tall enough to reach the outhouse seat—loath, she was, to rest on it for fear of all the crawling, stinging things her older cousins convinced her lurked there. And surely those knees propelled her toward the heavens when the plumbing was miraculously moved inside her grandfather’s Maryland farmhouse.

Her childish knees carried her along the rows of nesting hens to steal away the chicks they would have nurtured had they been allowed. But in times of strife, eggs—too dear to eat—were sold, and birds that no longer laid became a tough and tired stew. Did her knees then carry her swiftly from the squawking fowl or did she stay, frozen by the sickening snap of a feathered neck?

When the farm was gone, the knees of the barefoot girl gave up swinging from the willowy trees along the Gunpowder’s waters and became adept at sidewalk hopscotch, her brown brogues slapping the rhythm. She hung by her knees from Baltimore’s monkey bars and skipped gleefully past the vendors’ stalls of Lexington Market, forgetting the touch of cornstalks and wild berry bushes.

Then the brogues became pumps, and her knees scaled the marble steps of Washington College, learned the dips and twirls of Benny Goodman’s band, settled on benches while a bounty of crabs was consumed, and locked around a man with whom she would saunter into eternity.

And again her knees proved trustworthy and strong when she squatted in the birthing fields. Four times they bore the wrenching pain and rose in wonder at creation. Four times they held her up before the joyful toddling, the tearful adolescence, the relief and anguish of young adults departing. Four times they stood firm before dear ones' sorrows and sailed the wake of their victories.

How many times, though, did those steadfast knees catch her fall as she was beaten down by the paltry expectations for her gender? By the unreasoning institutions that paid her not to think too well but to acquiesce to the patriarchy? By children’s choices gone awry? By bitter regrets and stabbing disappointments?

But even then, her stalwart hinges of sinew and bone walked the powerful stride of a woman worthy, loved, and not infrequently needed. A woman slowed by the accumulation of nearly nine decades of bending.

And when my mother’s knees bent their painful last, I imagined taking a soft and supple sponge to her withered flesh. Bathing away the lifetime of dust and dirt from her knees, smoothing the wrinkles of a million million ups and downs, and caressing a final farewell to the knobby remnants of her strength and love.

And then tenderly, tenderly, tenderly I let go.

Love,
K-B

A version of this was published in 1996 by the now-defunct North County Times.