It was dark and glossy, the color of coffee, and when she plaited it in braids, she could sit on them. My mother’s hair at 19 must have been something to see. Most of the time, she pinned it around her head, ever the practical woman, but I can imagine how she looked when she unwound those braids, her pretty face surrounded by a shining nimbus. I’ve seen photos of her with her hair pinned up – Iona holding the first baby; Iona grinning over a fishing pole; even Iona swept up by my father in a very romantic embrace.
By the time she had me, it was short. Short and permed, like every other mother on the post-WWII block. So few were the mothers with long hair – nonexistent, really – that I honestly believed something happened to women’s hair when they reached a certain age. By 35, say, their hair just stopped growing, and even if it had been straight as a stick before, it now took on a definite wave, stiffened into submission with clouds of Alberto VO5. I figured this would happen to me, if I thought about it at all. Being 35 seemed as likely as going to the moon when I was young.
Mom kept my hair pretty short as a child, which was probably a good thing, given my penchant for falling asleep with Lucky Stripe or Beaman’s gum in my mouth. Come morning, my dad would get out the bottle of naptha. It took out the gum, all right, and left me with vile-smelling hair for the rest of the day.
At what age does a girl become aware of her looks? I’ve always thought it must be when she gets a mirror in her room, or maybe when she notices the magazines on the newsstand targeted at slightly older girls. For me, that was Seventeen, an odd name for a periodical more likely aimed at girls closer to twelve and thirteen. Suddenly I was riding my bike to Five Points to buy not only a Hershey bar, but also the latest Seventeen, and later on to stock up on whatever the magazine’s ads promised would make me irresistible to the opposite sex.
Hair was always a big part of that appeal. For me and my friends, it was just our luck to hit puberty alongside the British Invasion, and if the boys had long hair, so did the girls. We all wanted to look like Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher, with the long flip and the teased up crown, at least until some of us started wanting to look like Twiggy, with the pixie cut and toothpick arms and legs.
What was a girl to do? I fantasized obsessively about hair that could be cranked out long and back to short with the push of a button, but that invention never came to pass. We girls at Williams Junior High were jealous of a girl from Sudlow who had hair all the way to her KNEES. She must have known, somehow, three years before the Beatles left Liverpool, that long hair was going to be in. Lucky her. No fair.
I’ve read that girls and their mothers have far too many fights about hair. That a girl who’s been away at college will be met at the airport by a mother whose first words will be, “What have you done to your hair?” We can’t help it. When we are daughters, we neglect the niceties of brushing and conditioning in those glorious first days of independence, and when we are mothers, it’s the safest substitution for the questions we really want to ask, like, “Are you living with that boy? Why won’t you let me friend you? Do you still love your dad and me?” Given the alternatives, hair is pretty safe territory.
And so, too, is hair a safe place to show love and concern. Even a shampoo by a relative stranger in a beauty salon can feel like solace, if no one else has touched you in days. I will never forget the slumber party for my 16th birthday, as my friends and I sat around the table having cake and ice cream. My mom approached Cindy, the wildest girl in the bunch, and began running her fingers through her long, thick hair. Cindy was moved, I could tell, and grateful. We thought of her as hard-edged, untouchable; Mom saw a girl with beautiful hair.
As I grew older, my hair went from Rapunzel to Mia Farrow over and over again. I loved my long hair, but couldn’t do a thing with it; putting it in braids wrapped around my head the way my mom and grandma had done just made me look like some crazed Heidi of the Alps gone hippie. I found it especially satisfying to have it all chopped off when I was mad at the world, which every woman knows is code for My Boyfriend Broke Up With Me And I’m Showing Him What I Think of His “Thing” for Long Hair. Ah, freedom.
Right now, I’m stuck at medium, or I Guess I’m Growing My Hair Out. My long-suffering haircutter knows I keep a bulging file of hairstyle clippings for moments like these. But when I went to fetch it, I found instead a photo of my mother, because it was almost Mother’s Day and my friends and I were posting them on Facebook. A young girl, she was standing outside in her pj’s, her hair a dark cap perfectly framing her smiling face. There, I thought, and packed up the photo to take to the salon. Sometimes inspiration comes in unexpected places, from people you thought were long gone.