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

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Sunday, January 31, 2010; W20

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."

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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