No one knows it but me. Well, maybe Dave does. But you wouldn't know by looking at me that under the soft fleshy bulb over my kneecap there is a single black cinder. I used to be able to see it under the stretched skin when I was younger and more agile, and less fleshy... when I was able to pull my knee up to my chest. Now I have to massage my left knee pretty heartily in order to find that cinder. It reminds me.
When I was seven years old, a first grader at MacAnulty Elementary in Whitehall PA, I walked home from school with my brother and sister, up and down the hilly roads that led to our house on Jean Drive. There were no sidewalks. The asphalt of the roads, frozen and defrosted day after day through the winter, unravelled on the edges. Add to the schizophrenic weather of Southwestern PA the accelerator of salt and cinder thrown from snow plows, and what you got was a layer of asphalt and cinder on the side of the road that crumbled under my size one feet when I walked. Inevitably I fell on that unraveled roadside on the walk home from school, at least every other week. Just as the scab from one fall was drying up, I fell again, ripping off the old crusty skin and exposing an oozing shiny mass of flesh, which immediately became filled with tiny black pieces of cinder. I absolutely hated those days when I fell, not so much because of the immediate pain, though there was that. Nor was it the humiliation of repeatedly losing my step in front of other people. What I dreaded most of all was knowing what would happen when I got home.
Mom, seeing the bright red ooze on my knee cap, pulled my shirt up over my head, followed by my little white undershirt. I carefully stepped out of my skirt, and rolled my bloody knee high sock off the end of one foot, and then the other. Meanwhile mom turned both knobs on the old cast iron tub in the upstairs bathroom, the squeak of the handles followed by a surge of air, the clanking of pipes, and a flow of clean water. She placed her forearm under the faucet, adjusting the knobs until it was just this side of too hot. I cringed as I stood there, my arms folded over my chest, waiting for the tub to fill, knowing what was coming. Finally my mother lifted me into the bathtub, handed me a clean dry washcloth and reached under the sink for the scrub brush. I carefully, painfully, lowered my bloody cinder filled knee into the water until it was fully immersed. If Mom wasn't busy, I would soak the knee for a while. But if there was something on the stove that needed her attention, there was no time for softening of the skin. She just plowed on through.
Mom handed me the clean washcloth, which I rolled up and stuffed into my mouth. I closed my eyes as she lifted my knee out of the water, dipped the bristle ridden brush into the tub water, brushed it over a bar of soap, and went at those cinders in my knee like they were red fire ants on a fleshy ant hill. I screamed into the washcloth, biting hard, my diaphragm pressing up as I pushed the pain out through my throat. Tears burned my eyes, and my little bony shoulders heaved as she scrubbed. Soon enough she took the washcloth from my mouth and dipped it in the water. Holding it over my knee she pressed clean water from the faucet out onto the brightly cleaned knee. I rose from the water, sat on the edge of the tub as it drained, and she poured peroxide over the wound, finishing off with a series of long, cool breaths from her pursed lips, drying it with air. Afterwards she trickled a small stream of iodine onto a cotton ball, dabbed it onto the wound, then topped it off with a glob of Vaseline and a gauze patch. Oh my, it wears me out remembering.
I think of my mom; of her tough and tender nature, and her wisdom. It took me becoming a mom myself to understand that she was helping me by hurting me. She knew that some things require more than a hug and a band aid. Those cinders needed to get out of my knee, and someone needed to be brave enough to go after them. Mom knew that if we left the cinders in there, they would embed themselves, and I would forever have issues with my knee as the cinders moved around in cartilage and joints. She knew that the only way to get those cinders out was to force them out. I am moved, strangely, that my mom was willing to let me feel pain. She was willing to risk me thinking she was mean. That's a rare thing among parents these days. While I shiver at the memory of the scrubbing, I crave the deliciousness of the increase in love she also gave when the task was completed.
The singular cinder I occasionally find under the scar on my left knee serves as a reminder that I can do hard things. That sometimes I must allow myself to be scrubbed out, to endure a moment of pain for an extended period of health. It reminds me to be cautious, and if I make a mistake, to be willing to do what is needed to correct that mistake, regardless of the comfort level.
In many ways I was a wimp of a mom. I did not want to see my children suffer. But my mom…not her. She knew the value of pain with purpose. And, speaking for my knee at least, that's a darn good thing.