Monthly Archives: May 2015

Bad Hair Day

It’s rainy and humid today.  Translation: Make Room for the Hair.  It starts out innocently enough in the morning as I carry hope like a fragile spark of life.   By mid-morning, my peripheral vision has already been severely compromised, and by late afternoon, people sometimes mistake me for the drummer from Whitesnake.   No amount of product is enough.  Cute headbands get lost in the jungle.  My kids yell at me:  Mom, sunglasses are not a hair accessory.  But they don’t know how it is.

My hair is a separate free-willed living organism, perched atop my body.  Like Gremlins, it gets stronger and more unruly with water, sunlight, and attempts to “feed” with hair products.  When I was young, my locks were so baby-fine and wispy, barrettes and ponytails would slide right out, leaving my hair to hang in my face clinging like silken spider webs.  Either that or it would stand on end, with enough static electricity to power a small village. I had to get other people to open the refrigerator or car doors or I’d be thrown backwards, howling from the force of the static discharge.

naturally curlySometime in college, things went haywire, the genetic wheel spun once more and landed on “naturally curly.” Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s a boon to your daily life.  Colonics are naturally cleansing.  You don’t really want those either.

In the 70’s, everyone wore their hair straight, long, and parted in the middle.  My three older sisters would hoard cans of baby food and juice, cut the ends off, and use them to roll their hair.  No way was my father shelling out for three sets of hot rollers and expensive straighteners.  They’d walk around the house with their rolled hair out to here, carefully navigating around corners with their extra-wide heads.  They’d go through scores of bobby pins and endure painful nights sleeping on metal cans so their hair could be tamed and straightened perfectly.   For the oldest two, this process worked great, despite the discomfort and time required.  For the third, this was futile.  She, too, was naturally curly.  Her baby pictures resembled Shirley Temple, with long bouncy ringlets.  Cute when you’re three, but not when you’re 16 in the 70’s.  She eventually gave up after angry tirades before the bathroom mirror, black sulky moods, and railing at the universe for her misfortune.  She wore bandanas daily to cover the shame of her cursed curls.

My mother’s locks, as long as I knew her, never crept much below her ears.  Our curls came from her.  She always had short, close-cut waves–and rocked sunglasses as an accessory, I might add.  She was fairly no-nonsense with the beauty routine, which I supposed she had to be with so many kids.  Every couple of days she’d wash her hair in the laundry room sink and occasionally pin a lock or two back with a bobby pin.  That was that.   Her dark color came from a box.  I imagine her shaking her head at my curly-haired sister’s fuming.  She was destined to have short, close-cut, wavy hair just like mom, but at 16 that must have seemed like a death sentence.  Somehow, my mother managed to not take that personally.

By the time I was old enough to care, long and straight was out (which of course was what I had).  Instead, we aimed for “feathers” on the side and nice, high bangs, achievable with copious amounts of AquaNet and hours with a curling iron.  Mine was straight and fine in the back with a brave attempt at “wings” on either side.  My bangs stuck up in front, crunchy with hairspray, like someone had run up from behind and smacked me hard on the back of the head.  My mother was no help here, having had no experience with high-maintenance hair.  She could not braid, twist, coiffe, or feather.  It was just hair, for heaven’s sake.  What was the big deal?

Which may be why, a decade or so later, when she started losing hers during radiation and chemo, she didn’t seem rattled.  Rather, she got the giggles when trying on wigs and went for a long, blonde Lady Godiva number that she never could have sported on her own.   She got a sensible one, too, that looked more like her everyday self, but she hardly ever wore it—too hot and itchy.  More often, she just went with what it was, and her sparse, thinning, gray tufts were allowed to blow in the breeze.

Once, when she was in the hospital, I stopped by the house to clean, vacuuming the hardwood in the hallway near her bedroom.  The dust bunnies had gotten out of hand, swirling and dancing into the corners.  Great tumbleweeds sailed across the floor, blown by the vacuum’s exhaust.  I stooped to catch one, mid-swirl, when I realized this was not dust.  It was all my mother’s lost hair, hunks and fist-fulls of it, huddled in the corners and doorways like so much debris.  I was glad for the noise of the vacuum.  It masked the sound of my grief as I made sure to get all the baseboards and air vents, erasing the evidence of her decline.

Five years ago, cancer struck again.  This time, it was a dear friend with two young children.  She harbored a little more vanity than my mother had, and she despised the wispy hunks of dark hair that covered her pillow every morning and washed down the drain with her shower.  She made an appointment, and I drove her to the salon, where her regular guy gave her a hug.  “It’s time,” she said, and as he unfurled the drape across her and gently leaned her backwards for one last wash, I headed to the front of the building to give her some privacy.   I could hear the clippers buzz as the last of her thick, dark locks dropped onto the floor.   I stood in the front sobbing at the unfairness, once again glad for the buzzing noise that hid my tears.  By the time she was done, I’d pulled myself together and handed her the fuzzy hat she’d brought along.  “You look beautiful,” I told her, and she did, her big brown eyes shining and luminous beneath her shaved head.

Once I remind myself to look through my perspectacles, the bad hair days I contend with when it rains aren’t that bad.  Sometimes I still wish for the shining smooth tresses tossed by those girls on the red carpet.  Occasionally I wish my hair would grow further than my shoulders, where it hangs in waves and flips.  But now when people ask Is your hair naturally like that? I smile and say I got these curls from my mom.  When I’m tempted to grouse about its unruly ways, I think of her as Lady Godiva and my brave, bold friend that day at the salon.  It’s just hair.  It ain’t no big thing.


The Time My Mother Left

My mother walked out on us once, threw up her hands, turned her back and hit the road.   We didn’t blame her since we’d driven her to it; there were no more buttons left to push.  She came back eventually, but there were several long, tense moments when her return was not a given.  But let me start over.

I needed a break this week.  Just a random, purposeless, sit still and do nothing break.  These times can roll up on you until they’re suddenly breathing hotly down your neck, buzzing in your ear like a relentless mosquito.  After a couple of weeks of bringing meals to school for teacher appreciation, notarizing permission slips, attacking the mound of papers on my desk for work, trying to tame the jungle yard and keep everyone fed, the late afternoon headaches would hit, and no amount of caffeine would quench the monster.

As if on cue, some sadistic, hateful person posted a serene beach picture featuring their pedicured toes in the sand, which brought on the heavy woe-is-me sighs.  I’m sure this is only me—you’re probably breezily zipping along in the fast lane—one of the balls I’ve been juggling drops, or I eat one too many meals on the go.  I haven’t had a meaningful conversation with my spouse in three days, and if I have to scrape up one more nasty hairball from the floor, I’m going to lose it.

I thought back to when the kids were little, days when a clean house was relative, applesauce and ice cream sounded like a good dinner plan, and I’d be lurching around the house like Quasimodo, carrying one teething baby on my hip while dragging a whiny toddler who seemed to be permanently stapled to my leg.   Some days the morning hours til nap time would drag by in a blur of broken crayons and diapers, and God bless my husband who dragged in at the witching hour before dinner on days like that.  Let’s just say I didn’t greet him at the door wearing pearls and a smile.

Those days weren’t always pretty.  I’d stare out the Window of Despair, asking what had I done, seriously considering how much gas I had in the car and wondering how far I could get.   They call these black moods postpartum depression, and happily, there’s help for that.  But in the days of my own childhood, they just called it motherhood and you were expected to soldier on unaided.

Which brings me to the night my mother left.   My father was on a year-long tour of duty out of the country, leaving my mother alone in the house with three teenaged girls and two young kids.  This is a cruel and unusual predicament for all but the most unflappable.   These were the ingredients for a perfect storm:  three teenagers with synced PMS, a demanding five-year-old, and a busy toddler with a penchant for injury and going AWOL.

After 18 years of marriage and a family, my mother had finally given herself permission to take a couple of college classes, so she was trying to read actual literature and write coherent papers in between the demands of five children.  Perhaps she thought she’d been a little distracted lately, but whatever the reason, she decided to take time away from her books to make a special Sunday roast beef dinner for the six of us.  The table was set with the main dish, mashed potatoes and steaming hot gravy, rolls, and vegetables.  Glasses were filled with iced tea and we had all gathered around the dining room table to spend some quality family time together before the busyness of a new week started.

No one remembers what started it.  One of my sisters uttered some snarky teenaged remark aimed below the belt.  Another sister took offense, aiming right back, and it escalated.  Escalated in the sense of Hurricane Katrina starting out as a cool ocean breeze. The noxious cocktail of female hormones, a long week, and some innate death wish fermented to the point of fission.  The first shot fired was a spoonful of mashed potatoes.  Before my mother could scream, “What is the MATTER with you people?!” it was all out war, with hot sloshing gravy, flying green beans, vicious screaming girls, and finally, the coup d’grace:  the entire pitcher of iced tea hit the wall.

The third sister snatched up my younger brother from his high chair where he screamed, wide-eyed at the mayhem.  She yanked me by the hand, dragging me into the hallway, away from the flying feast, her only thought to “Save The Children!”   At some point during the melee, someone must have noticed an absence.  No parental intervention.  No parent, period.  Mother had left.  The driveway was empty and an eerie and remorseful silence had befallen the dining room.   Uh-oh.

Had my father been home, that would have been the end of the story.  Our family would have had two fewer children as the two at fault would have been summarily executed in the backyard.   As it was, they swallowed hard and cleaned up every inch of the dining room with heads hung low.  My brother and I were quietly put to bed where we went without protest.  The three older sisters sat somberly in their room, probably discussing options for how to pay the mortgage until dad came back.

When we woke up in the morning, she was in the kitchen making breakfast before school as usual.  We found out later she’d driven to the beach and sat on the dunes.  No telling how many hours she spent there, letting the sound of the waves soothe her nerves, watching the little crabs scurry in and out of their holes while she chain-smoked Tareyton 100’s.   She had had it up to here and needed to remember that she loved us.

We didn’t speak of that day until years later.  And it would be many more years later before my father was told, after my sisters had moved out and could ostensibly arrange their own Witness Protection.

On days when I, too, have had it up to here with whatever fill-in-the-blank calamity takes over, I remember the epic food fight story and the time my mother left.  I recognize the mental red flags that signal that it’s time to bug out to salvage some sanity.

It’s okay, necessary, to take breaks.  Time-outs aren’t just for two-year-olds!   Walk away from the computer, arrange lunch with a friend, close the bathroom door and just breathe for a few minutes.  It will not always be this way or feel like this.  We are given new mercies at the start of each day.  While you’re telling your kids to share and be kind, be nice to yourself, too.  And for heaven’s sake, go out for dinner.


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A sweet video by Pandora has been making the internet rounds lately.  Maybe you’ve seen it.  It features several blindfolded children who attempt to pick out their mothers from a group of women.  Grab a tissue, and you can see it here.

Even without seeing them, the children quickly discern this one’s mine by touch, smell, or some familiar invisible love vibe that radiates from their mothers when they draw near.  Immediately after the birth of my first child, when the nurse placed the swaddled cocoon in my arms, we drank each other in.  I was delighted to finally meet this little person I’d been so preoccupied with for the past nine months.  “Hello!”  I told her, “There you are!” as if I’d been searching high and low for just this thing.  And of course I had been.   She rewarded me by reaching up a wavering starfish hand and touching my cheek.  Pat, pat.  “Calm down, ma,” she seemed to say, “It’s just me.”

From then on with both my children it was constant drool (mine, not theirs).  Memorizing, touching, and kissing each little part.  The whorl of perfect ears, the flat button nose, the rounded belly and folds of baby fat in their kicky legs.  I couldn’t keep my hands off them, constantly nom-nomming the soles of their feet and little sausage toes.  At the end of each naptime, when they’d wake up sweaty and sleepy-eyed in their crib, it was always a fresh discovery to open the nursery door to their expectant, hopeful faces.   Mom! There you are!  Every time–every time–I’d open the door to find this little person waiting for me it was a surprise, as if the time lapse of nap time would have wafted this sudden role of motherhood away like white puffs of baby powder.

We are born empty vessels needing to be filled.  We are born searching for connection, our eyes seeking contact, our limbs flailing nervously until they are swaddled and held.

It’s the reason children play peek-a-boo, especially endlessly, it seems, between the cracks in the airline seats on long flights.  In their play, they are asking the old existential question:  if I am lost, will I be found?  If I disappear, will anyone notice?   They test it again and again, and when they are discovered–peek-a-boo, I see you!–the giggles of delight are uncontainable and contagious.

Several of our friends have gone or are going through the process of adopting a child.  There must be no greater act of human grace than this, to choose a child, wrap them tightly in love, and give them the assurance that from now on, there is someone who sees them, loves them, has found them.  They matter, they belong, no matter what.

Marianne Williamson said the whole world is an orphan’s home.  We are all of us waiting in the wings to be chosen, found, loved.  We are lost children at Disney World, swimming in a sea of knees and strollers, spinning around wildly searching for someone who’ll rush over and hold us tight–there you are!  Thank goodness I found you!

This video strikes such a chord, I think, because so many of us are dying of loneliness and our one true wish is to be discovered, treasured, and known.  We have hundreds of online “friends,” but few deep connections.  We are afraid to really be seen, but are craving exactly that.  These questions–do I matter?  does anyone see me?–dog us the rest of our lives like a black mongrel.  If you are lucky, you have a mother, sister, or best friend.  People who, in a crowd at the county fair, you could immediately detect in the sea of humanity, your eyes lighting on them, giving you a surge of connection, a lightness in your breath.  There they are!   Your tribe.  They fill your vessel.

Trouble is, our holding capacity is endless.   Most of us have cracks in our vessels from being dropped a time or two, kicked around and chipped.  Never mind how much you may have been filled in the past, the cracks and fissures are a slow leak.  Eventually, the jug will run dry, and in our fear, we scramble to plug the dike with our thumbs.  This can make us mean and selfish, hoarders of joy, stingy with our supply.  It is this sort of thing that makes Jesus pinch the bridge of his nose and head for the vineyard at the end of the day.

Be a seer, a finder, a filler.  Deliberately take a second to make someone feel discovered, and like a miracle, the level of joy in your own vessel rises.   There’s a story about hell that goes like this:  everyone is seated at a banquet table, a delicious soup before them.  They all have spoons but their handles are too long to reach their own mouths, so they are miserable, desperate and starving.  In heaven it’s the same thing; same table, same soup, same spoons.  Except here, everyone feeds someone else within their arm’s reach and no one is hungry.

Do this especially with your teenagers.  See them.  Find them.  Remember when they were small nubbins of yummyness.  When they come slouching into the kitchen grousing and moody, be happy, even delighted to see them–there you are!  They are already developing hairline fissures in their cisterns and are feeling invisible, misunderstood, unknown.

Do this with the EGR people.  Extra Grace Required.  You know who they are.  They’ve scrabbled, hoarded, and plugged for so long they’ve become desperate and would take you down with them like a person who’s drowning.  See them.  Fill them, even if it’s just a teaspoon at a time.  They’re dirty-faced orphans, like you.

Do this with the people who seem to have it all together, living snappy crisp lives.   Really see them.  They sometimes work the hardest to keep it all going, and they’re tired, exhausted really; it’s endless work, all the spackling and maintaining.

Along the way, your own vessel fills.  There is a secret underground spring that bubbles up from beneath.  Sometimes other long-handled spoon people dose you and quench that thirst.  Grace multiplies like the loaves and fishes.  It fills you up, holds you over its shoulder and softly pats you on the back, there you are, there you are.