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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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Sometimes, over barrettes and tonics, we go deep.

It was hair time on the green couch when my oldest daughter, Sydney, then 5, came to the realization that she was different from the girls on the commercials; that her hair would never reach for her waist. "Even when I get older?" She cried; I cried; her godmother, Dana, cried.

It is, for little black girls, that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" moment when Miss Clairol comes for you. When you are just old enough to realize what the culture prizes as beautiful and just old enough to know that you aren't it. Non-black mothers whose daughters have ample thighs or flat chests or who fret about the shape of their eyes doubtless know the moment. But black people are the only ones in the world with black people hair, so our daughter's pain is ours alone. It is a moment when even a mother's love is not nearly enough comfort, but it's the only balm we have.

Savannah, whose hair is longer and curlier than Sydney's, was more resigned in her hair epiphany. She wondered why hers was so kinky. As the children's book says, we are "Happy to Be Nappy," I tried to explain to her cheerfully, but Savannah was skeptical. Nappy hair is hard to comb, she said, and wondered why she should be happy that her hair was hard to comb. "But okay, whatever."

"Did they have color television when you where a kid?" Savannah asks, breaking my reverie. I murmur affirmations as I twist. I chime in when appropriate or, under the guise of detangling, rhythmically knead my fingertips in her scalp until her eyelids start to fall. My daughter is right there on the brink of growing up, already showing signs of the woman she'll become. Her legs are longer now, and her T-shirts no longer lay flat against her ribs. My features are becoming more pronounced in her face. I keep rubbing, prolonging our time as I listen to her words or her sweet, untroubled silence.

As it happened with her sister before her, I will lose this intimacy with my last daughter to friends and parties and, worst of all, to boys and, eventually, men and children; to people who will come to mean more to her everyday life than I ever will again. I have been such a harried mother with Savannah, so distracted by the constant demands of husband and career and other children, and now, just as I'm looking up, my youngest daughter is almost beyond the old rituals. So I rub her scalp for the times I combed her hair hard, for the times I rushed through her kinks too quickly, for the times I yelled when I wish I had whispered. For the time I spanked her harder than I meant to for erasing an hour-long interview I had typed on my computer. I grease her hair and rub her scalp.

Let this be the hand she remembers.

In little more than an hour, our time is over. Savannah scarcely gives me a moment to admire her, this luminous little girl poised for adolescence, all mine for just seconds before she's off to find her soccer ball, her friend Pearl and the whole wide rest of her world.

It's okay, I console myself. Her sister still kisses me every night and sometimes asks me to roll her hair, so I know I won't lose this connection with Savannah altogether. Our time together will merely change. I lie across the couch, weary from my labor, and my own eyelids grow heavy. Savannah comes back to retrieve something and pauses. She lays a blanket across my length and gently tucks the ends under my sides.

Drifting off to sleep, I smile. Even without a comb in my hand, I think these days will never really be gone from me.

Lonnae O'Neal Parker is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at oneall@washpost.com.


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