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.
Sometime 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.