Balm: By styling her daughters' hair each morning, she was attending to something deeper than a beauty ritual

For Lonnae O'Neal Parker, styling her daughters' hair is a ritual about more than just beauty.

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By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Sunday, January 31, 2010

Soon now, these days will be gone from me.

As I settle myself on the couch, my 11-year-old daughter, Savannah, brings me her hair basket: comb, water bottle, hair grease, barrettes. She plants herself on the floor, squarely between my knees, and I begin my work. There's the everyday hair-doing, but wash day takes more time, and slowly I separate the thick, kinky tangle growing from her head. I rub in a dollop of grease -- Kemi Oyl or root stimulator lotion, but mostly just dark blue Ultra Sheen (I like the standards) -- to make the hair obedient, and part it into sections, clipping each firmly to her head.

My hands are slower and gentler now than they were when she was younger and I was younger, with a career to chase, and an older daughter who had her own head of hair for me to do, and another baby yet to come.

Sometimes, if I was pressed for time, I could get by with a few surface brush strokes and a liberal application of gel to make the girls passably presentable, but it took 20 minutes of work to make them look special. Twenty minutes to make them feel pretty so that neighbors would comment on the straightness of their parts. Twenty minutes to be reassured that I'd sent my children into the world making clear that they were valued and loved. Twenty minutes. Every day. Minimum. Apiece. For me to feel assuaged that if one day, please, God, no, they suddenly disappeared, I could persuade the 24-hour cable networks that my girls really were worthy enough to be news-- because, after all, black mothers can't recall a time where missing black women and children got national media attention.

Back then, when I craved only sleep, my children's tears -- because there is an unassailable physical hurt to the pulling and detangling of black girl hair -- often left me unmoved or impatient, or sometimes mingled with my own tired tears. Because, like my mother before me, I had so many other things to attend to.

My mother, a Chicago schoolteacher for 33 years, combed my hair and my sister's hair for 35 minutes every morning in her slip so as not to get hair grease on her work clothes. She reminds me of how much those mornings used to hurt. "You'd want to turn around and look at me with all this woe on your face so that maybe I would stop," Momma remembers. "But, you know, I couldn't stop, because you had to have your hair combed." And she had to get to work. And every two weeks, when she washed my hair, "it would be all over your head, like you had an afro the size of a small umbrella and that had to be pulled back down in something I could reasonably deal with."

Years ago, it was easy to lose sight that this ritual, this touching of my children every day, had an expiration date. But now ours is close.

I begin at the nape of Savannah's neck and make my first row of two-strand twists small and precise. The style is much like the one that first daughter 11-year-old Malia Obama wore last year on her first day of school in Washington, and this summer in Rome and at Martha's Vineyard. For us, children favored by the sun, whose natural kinks want nothing more than to stand at attention all over our heads, this hair thing between mothers and daughters goes back to the beginning, and I wonder if Malia's momma washes and twists her hair on Sunday afternoons, too. Or if the first lady knows how quickly this time with our girls slips away. Probably not. When our oldests are still young, we think they'll stay that way forever.

***

With more than an hour of parting and twisting ahead, and no place for either of us to go, Savvy and I talk. She wants to know if she can go to school for fashion design and if I like the name Harlowe for a girl. She tells me how she's the guitarist for "Black Dragon," the rock band she's formed with Nia and Alexis, although she can't play guitar, and how none of the Goosebumps books are scary, but "in terms of creepiness," "Chicken, Chicken" is worse than "Ghost Beach." She says she started reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" and that it made her angry that the Jews had to give the Nazis their bikes.

Such is the nature of hair space in my house; it is a time for rumination and a time for prattle.

"Mommy, I don't want you to call me Savvy anymore. My new name is Sav Sav," Savannah announced to me one day. "And I don't want you to call me Savannahsaurus Rex. My new nickname is Sav Sav Rex."


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