The fate of the world balanced between my Mom’s fingertips and my oldest sister’s mood. Every morning started the same for me and my three skinny sisters; rattled out of our beds— making them even before we peed, then breakfast, then dressing and lining up to get our long hair put up. Mom sat in her favorite teak lounge chair watching the morning news, and we sat between her knees one-by-one, Indian style, holding onto her calves. We mocked the hairstyle calling it “sprouts”, the only hairdo Mom could manage beside a ponytail. Mom would pull up our bangs and side tendrils with all her might and wrangle them into rubber bands that she saved from the daily paper. Most days we’d complain of headaches before leaving for school.
There was always a race for the sprouts, and my oldest sister always won. She always ticked off Mom by wiggling too much or having too many tangles, or she would wait until the moment when her sprouts were all smoothed out, when Mom held them just right and was about to twist on the rubber band … and my oldest sister would fake a cough or a sneeze. Mom would have to start all over. As a consequence, last one done always got a few extra thwacks to the back of the head from Mom’s rattail comb. My oldest sister took such hilarity in watching us get our heads yanked back hard by Mom’s relentless brushing and seeing Mom get so upset that she’d light a cigarette and take a long drag to calm her trembling hands.
She would sit, my oldest sister, on the sofa with shoulders shuddering in a silent giggle. Maybe it was sadism or maybe just payback for having to wear the same hair and outfit as her younger sisters. Those two had the same old argument that ended the same way everyday by Mom saying, “sure it’s fair, every one gets the same treatment around here and that’s the end of it!” Only it was never the end of it for my older sister.
Maybe in my Mom’s childhood there was favoritism, maybe her sisters got jealous over clothes, maybe my Mom got jealous of a prettier skirt or nicer shoes. In Mom’s house, we were treated the same, dressed the same — to a fair-thee-well; Mom’s little matryoshka, her little Russian nesting dolls. Out in the neighborhood we’d cause a scene, just a stir, at the baker’s or the butcher’s, my Mom smiled as we followed behind, her little matryoshka all in a row by age, and she laughed as the old cheek pinching babushkas bubbled and rushed to my doe-eyed baby sister, the cutest.
By the time we were teenagers Mom was long out of the hair battle. And, no match for my older sisters contesting for time in our one tiny bathroom, I went to school with long kinky greasy brown hair. Certain that the powers-that-be had it in for me, second semester sophomore year I got first period gym class, swim instruction for the entire semester. I got an ear infection the first week, but my parents thought I was just faking it to get out of swimming and they didn’t take me to the doctor after school. That night a 102 temperature and a piercing pain behind my ear woke me up, unable to stand it, I woke up my Dad. He felt my forehead, frowned and told me how I could relieve the pressure. I held my nose, closed my mouth and blew air through my ears. I heard a loud pulsing, then a high squeal and a tremendous whoosh. Shocked and seeing stars, I grabbed my ear, and screamed before I passed out next to my parent’s bed. When I came to, blood was in my palm and down my neck. I spent the rest of night sitting up in my bed, the only position that didn’t make me bawl. In the morning we went to see the doctor who looked directly at my father when he announced that I had burst my eardrum.
I missed swimming for a week and by doctor’s orders I had to dry my hair. My teacher let me leave early — for a head start over all the older girls that monopolized the wall mounted hand dryers. My kinky mop transformed. It was shiny and straight and wisped back just like a shampoo commercial as I walked through the hallways. By the end of the week I got asked out on my first date. By the end of that year I met my future husband.
When I was thirty I had three small children of my own, two boys and a girl. In my house, our day began with cuddle-time, then bed making, then breakfast, then dressing and hair. My boys were easy; I brushed their bobbing heads while they brushed their teeth. My daughter would come to me as I watched the news and sit between my knees, legs akimbo, her arms around my calves. Her long and thick hair had a mind of its own, no matter what style I tried it would never stay. It curled every which way and hid her pretty face.
My daughter was asked to her first dance when she was a sophomore. I took her to a real hairstylist for her first up do. It took the stylist over two hours to wash, dry, and style her hair. She used an old-fashioned rubber band to hold her hair in place, my daughter’s eyes welled up and she grimaced when the stylist twisted her hair into place. The poor stylist had to use all her might to whisk up her hair in a high ponytail and a can of hairspray to hold the long cascade of curls. Before my eyes my daughter transformed, a mirror holding onto a thirty-year-old reflection.
When we got home she slipped into her dress and heels, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She twirled around and began to pose like a model when I noticed a little wrinkle on the back of the dress that I had to iron out. I insisted that she put on a little lip-gloss. I fussed with her shawl until she became tired of standing still. I noticed her shoes had a bit of a scuff that I needed to rub out, but she refused to step out of them, and she stomped into her room and wouldn’t come out until I went away. She shouted through her bedroom door that she didn’t want me to come to her girlfriend’s house for pictures. I went to the kitchen, sat at the table and wondered when it happened, when had I become my mother?
A few minutes later my daughter tapped me on the shoulder. She stood there with one hand on her hip and in the other was a hairbrush and lip-gloss. She told me that if we were going to make it to the pictures I had to get my hair out of my eyes and put a little color on my face.