K.B. Holzman has been a poet, an administrator, and a parent, wandering from the West Coast to the East, and finally settling in New England where the sun filters through towering pines regardless of the season. Links to her published work can be found at https:/picaflorpress.weebly.com
A MOTHER’S LOVE
Sunday night my mother washed my hair. I stood on a stool at the kitchen sink wearing a large plastic bib with short sleeves as she adjusted the tap water, playing with the hot and cold spigots. When the temperature was right, she told me to bend over and used the spray nozzle to saturate my mousy brown hair, separating the strands with her fingers. Because I had dandruff, she scrubbed my scalp with a tar-based blue shampoo that smelled like the garage floor, medicating every inch of my scalp and rinsing thoroughly before she reapplied the shampoo. Rinsed again. As a young child, my hair, lopped off by her into a practical Buster Brown bob, was easy to wash, dry, and then untangle with a comb fresh out of a bowl of warm water and ammonia. By junior high, the detangling became more painful. My thick hair retreated into wet knots that defied the tug of her black-toothed comb. Thinking back, I realize that this ritual at the kitchen sink stretched long beyond the time most children depend on their mother to wash their hair. My own grandchildren, still in pre-school, delight in scrunching up their eyes as they dump a toy truck filled with bath water over their sudsy heads. Despite an occasional shriek of pain when soap gets in their eyes, this is part of a well-loved evening routine. Not for me. In my early teen years, after one final rinse, my mother would wrap my dripping head in a bath towel which she wound in a tight turban. Then she would back me into the kitchen wall and squeeze the blackheads on my face. Aggressively. I remember squirming, half-blind, my glasses stowed on the kitchen counter. My mother restrained me with a firm hand and did not release me until she had attacked each pimple with intense concentration. Popping my pimples was a habit I imitated well into adulthood when my acne refused to vanish. A private, somewhat shameful practice I found strangely seductive.
I’m sure if you asked her, my mother would have said this hair washing routine was an act of love, a maternal duty performed by a woman whose own mother died when she was young and therefore could not perform such devotions. As much an act of love as a good-night kiss or a brown bag lunch packed for the following school day.
Maintenance of hair was important to my mother. Until the day she died, she had a standing Friday morning appointment at the beauty parlor. If I flew in from the East Coast and needed a ride from the airport, I had to plan around this immutable date. The Friday morning appointment was the highlight of her week, her only self-indulgence (well, that and Manhattans).
I, on the other hand, hate going to the salon. Asked to hand over my glasses, I sit blindly in a swivel chair as a stranger tries to re-make me in their image. This antipathy dates back to an early experience when my mother decided I had outgrown home haircuts. A momentous transition which unnerved me. She took me, of course, to her own beautician. This stranger washed my hair and then snipped it as I sat among strange women in the cold room in a blur, inhaling the chemicals used to transform hair. After the cut, the beautician twirled my hair around plastic rollers and rolled my chair over to a combination chair/hair dryer where she lowered a globe-sized hood over my head, making me not only blind but deaf. Hot hair swirled around my vulnerable ears. A half hour later, the beautician removed the rollers and bobby pins. She combed and ratted my hair, applying hair spray liberally, chatting all the while with my mother.
At last, she handed me my glasses and a hand-held mirror with a flourish. I could see again! In the mirror, my mother’s bouffant do surrounded my seriously horrified face. A stranger, and not an attractive one, glared back at me. As the two women watched expectantly, I burst into tears. At home, I locked myself in the bathroom and brushed and brushed the stiff mat of hair, still weeping. Convinced there was a conspiracy to steal my soul.
That horror never left me. Over the years, I have tried to face it down. I arrived in beauty parlors with pictures clipped from magazines of successful and powerful women hoping to take control of the process, only to be disappointed by the results. In the eighties, I succumbed to smelly permanents (this was the period when I bought suits with shoulder pads and carried a briefcase). Apart from one lovely young beautician from Vermont with waist-length strawberry blond hair who cut hair in her kitchen so she could keep an eye on her four kids, I have cringed under the hands of beauticians.
When my husband and I negotiated the terms of our marriage, he asked me never to cut my hair. His ideal woman, he said, had long hair and wore a back pack. Over the ensuing years, life intervened—work and parenthood—and the our marriage required constant renegotiation, but that initial request, sparked the first glow of discovery: I had found a soulmate who accepted me as I truly was. It didn’t matter if he pulled my hair, out of clumsiness not malice, when we made love.
Nowadays, I let my hair grow, wear it in a braid or tie it in a loose ponytail for safe-keeping. When necessary, I cut it myself, using techniques gleaned from a magazine article. Because my hair is long, it takes a long time to dry after washing. I prefer to dry it in front of my wood stove, brushing it from time to time as it springs back to life, watching the gray strands overtake the brown, cheering on the white streak that reaches my shoulder.
My mother, her hair permed and rinsed with that blue rinse favored by her contemporaries, never understand my distrust of beauticians. As it is for so many women, her weekly appointment at the salon was “her time.” Denied a childhood, it offered an opportunity to be cared for, loved, and touched. A woman who didn’t trust easily, she was putty in the hands of her beautician who each week restored her to the woman she wanted to be. With plastic scarfs and hairspray, she struggled to maintain the finished product during the week she was left to her devices.
No wonder, she set out to be that for me. No wonder I wriggled away.