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Locks That Bind Them Together

The many hours spent caring for her daughters' hair is one strand of her life that she is content to maintain.

March 15, 2000|SUSAN STRAIGHT | SALON.COM

On Friday afternoons when other people my age mention their evening plans, I have an unwavering commitment that sounds like an excuse. Mine is not "I have to wash my hair," but "I have to do my girls' hair."

I spend Friday nights on a cracked leather love seat combing out three damp heads springing with waist-length, freshly conditioned spiral curls. While we watch vapid teenage television shows, I spray detangler and separate trying-to-dread locks, then braid the long hair for the night.

I take my daughters' hair very seriously. They are part me--Swiss and French American--and part their father--Greek, African and Irish American. They are women of color, girls with burnished gold skin and black eyebrows.

In our family, and in the black community where much of our family has lived, the care and maintenance of hair means more than just barrettes and ponytails; hair reflects pride and care, and neglected heads display a serious lack of mother's love.

*

During "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," I comb through my oldest daughter Gaila's hair. After a long week of sports and sleeping, her kitchen needs work.

Most white women do not know this kitchen, the snarls at the nape of the neck. Many white women I know express shock that I spend this much time on my girls' hair.

"I don't even think I technically washed my kids' hair until they were 4," someone once told me.

It is true that in the morning the choices of hairstyle for my girls are endless, and we have to set aside some time if they want something special like a bun or braids. Then again, the women who don't have to do this miss out on hours of touching, talking and closeness.

On school-day mornings, while I braid, twist or merely gather their hair into a ponytail, we go over spelling words, discuss the playground bully, choose something special for preschool share day.

After I was married, I spent hours in my mother-in-law's house, watching relatives and friends braid hair, laugh, watch movies, make lemon cake and talk and talk. One friend talked to me seriously about my coming child. "One thing I hate in this world," she said, "is a white woman who won't learn to do her kids' hair. With the combination of his and yours, they're gonna have a lot. Don't let it get all nappy, and don't let it get all dry, and don't ever think it doesn't matter. Because it does."

*

From the time I first bathed my oldest daughter in the kitchen sink, I was careful to comb out her perfect snail-shell curls, thrilled at her intent stare on my face when I fastened barrettes at her temples.

At 2, Gaila's hair was past her shoulders, dark-brown ringlets that lightened to copper at the ends in the summer. Delphine's hair was true black, wavier and thicker, a dense cloud of ponytail if we didn't moisturize. And Rosette's hair took the longest to grow--she would sit in the bathtub next to her sisters and cry that she wanted her hair to touch her butt like theirs. Now that she's 4, it reaches the middle of her back, perfect spiral curls that have tints of gold and bronze.

No one else has ever washed, conditioned and combed out all that hair.

If I was gone on business for three days, and their father or my mother watched them, I came home to bird nests, snarls and elastics left in so long they had to be cut out. But that's OK.

Rosette is what we call tender-headed, and the slightest tugging at her scalp makes her cry. I'm willing to be patient, because this is what we do.

While I've combed and braided over the past eight years or so, we've watched figure skating, music awards, "My Fair Lady" and "Runaway Bride." We've talked about marriage and divorce, rich and poor, black and white, and all the things in between.

Summer is the most trying time, I'll admit. Gaila is a dedicated swimmer, but without that kind of greenish-gold low-maintenance hair you see on Olympic types. Swim caps, with two braids tucked under, are essential. And still, this summer she came home from a birthday party during which she'd forgotten to do anything but swim for hours. She was crying hysterically when she got into the house. Her waist-length hair was barely touching her shoulders. She had dreaded-up big-time. I wanted to cry hysterically, too, examining the mass of spongy, fused hair.

I ran across the street to find my neighbor Juli, who was the only white girl on her Texas high-school track team. During her hours on the bus and the sidelines, she learned to braid and comb very well.

During the two hours it took us to work a chamomile-conditioner mix into the damp mass of hair, then separate the curls with a comb, Gaila cried sometimes at her tender scalp, and Delphine held her hand, while Rosette sang songs.

*

Juli, who had just finished reading a history of Henry VIII and his wives, told us the whole tale of nuptials, their true political, social and romantic reasons, their often unhappy ends. I looked at my daughters, who were spellbound.

I pulled yet another strand of hair loose, and Juli began to braid from the other side, adding gold fasteners. Delphine said thoughtfully, "So I have it figured out, Mom. If you were a woman back then, you were sick, pregnant, dead or in a tower. Right?"

"I'm sure glad I'm alive now," Gaila said, wincing. Rosette said, "But I like princesses!"

I felt Rosette's hand on my leg, Gaila's shoulders against my knees, and Delphine's breath on my neck. My fingers wove and wove, and I knew what was braided into each minute we spent there.

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