Natasha Trethewey

The Southern Crescent

In 1959 my mother is boarding a train. 
She is barely sixteen, her one large grip 
bulging with homemade dresses, whisper 
of crinoline and lace, her name stitched 
inside each one. She is leaving behind 
the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film 
of red dust around her ankles, the thin 
whistle of wind through the floorboards 
of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

Ahead of her, days of travel, one town 
after the next, and California, a word 
she can’t stop repeating. Over and over 
she will practice meeting her father, imagine 
how he must look, how different now 
from the one photo she has of him. She will 
look at it once more, pulling into the station 
at Los Angeles, and then again and again 
on the platform, no one like him in sight.

The year the old Crescent makes its last run, 
my mother insists we ride it together. 
We leave Gulfport late morning, heading east. 
Years before, we rode together to meet 
another man, my father, waiting for us 
as our train derailed. I don’t recall how 
she must have held me, how her face sank 
as she realized, again, the uncertainty 
of it all—that trip, too, gone wrong. Today,

she is sure we can leave home, bound only 
for whatever awaits us, the sun now 
setting behind us, the rails humming 
like anticipation, the train pulling us 
toward the end of another day. I watch 
each small town pass before my window 
until the light goes, and the reflection 
of my mother’s face appears, clearer now 
as evening comes on, dark and certain.