When my daughter was born, I vowed I’d never criticize her hair. It infuriated me whenever my mother scrutinized my straight strands more sharply than Tim Gunn. “When’s the last time you got a cut?” she’d zing. Or: “Why don’t you try my guy? He’d do wonders for you.”
My daughter was born with a thick brown mane. It was perfect. I’d waited until I was 40 to have her, a year after a miscarriage. Long before I planned to have a child, I’d pass the Joffrey Ballet School every day, a block from my apartment. I’d go limp watching the little girls with their tightly-fastened buns, escorted by their mothers to dance class. Someday, I imagined, that would be my daughter and me.
It turned out she hated ballet, even with her petite, flexible body ideal for pliés. The only place she jetéd was from the top of the jungle gym, a high energy tomboy who refused to be constrained by a tutu. My parents had forced golf lessons on me, their obsession. “Keep your head down,” the pro barked, grabbing my bangs each time I swung a club.
I wanted to be a mother who allowed her child to select her own passions. My daughter chose soccer, a foreign game whose rules I didn’t understand. From the sidelines I cheered on my tenacious goal-kicker in a polyester jersey rather than a sleek black leotard. She was sweaty, but always well groomed in a jaw-level pageboy.
I schlepped her uptown to Cozy’s Cuts for Kids, the way my mother hired expensive scissors to shape my tresses in department stores we couldn’t afford to shop in. Expensive pampering was beyond her budget, but she’d rather serve spaghetti every night than sacrifice my coiffure. She’d grown up in an orphanage, her widowed mother too poor to keep her at home. Homemade haircuts were as close as she ever came to a spa treatment. She put a bowl over my older brother’s head and snipped away herself—until his first authentic cut right before his bar mitzvah. “He was the only 13-year-old who cried in the barber’s chair,” she claimed.
She secretly splurged on upscale bobs on my father’s civil servant salary. My initiation was in high school, a one hour subway ride from Sheepshead Bay to East 54th Street. Mom treated me to Mr. Kenneth himself, guru to the stars including Marilyn Monroe, creator of Jackie Kennedy’s bouffant. I donned my first robe as if being inducted into the Supreme Court.
“Exquisite!” my mother rated my perfectly blown dry shoulder length locks that never held a curl. She didn’t compliment my hair for another 30 years.
Deborah Tannen, in her groundbreaking You’re Wearing That?, analyzed how mothers and daughters critique each other on the Big Three: hair, weight, and clothes. “Longing for approval and understanding,” she writes, “yet each wanting to be seen for who she really is, while blaming the other for falling short of who she should be.”
I was reading Tannen on the plane to visit my mother when she was in her 80s. Swinging open her Florida apartment door, she greeted me, “Why do you always wear black?”
On my next trip I selected the loudest neon lime green shirt, thrusting out my torso, waiting for praise.
Staring piercingly, she pronounced, “You don’t look good in that color.”
I gave up. And I learned to grit my teeth whenever I found myself slipping with my daughter. I didn’t say a word when she insisted on prancing to the park in plaid pants with flowered shirts, different color socks, rain boots when it was sunny. I retracted my hand whenever I felt the urge to brush the fringe off her forehead, the way my mother roughly mowed my bangs, complaining, “I can’t see your eyes.” I did deep yoga breaths to cope when my daughter wore the same Paul Frank knit cap pulled down to her eyebrows, every day, even in summer, for two entire years. If I found myself almost blurting, “Why must you pull your hair back so severely in that ridiculous off-center pony tail?” I would just fib, “You look beautiful.”
Occasionally she asked me to do her up, but I completely bombed in chignons and French braids, making Pippi Longstocking look like a supermodel in comparison. When my mother was in the early stages of dementia, she attempted to make pigtails on my 10-year-old daughter. My daughter sat patiently, viewed the lopsided creation, and insisted, “Grandma, it looks great.”
When my mother was bedridden, her caretaker trimmed her gray hair at home: blunt and uneven. Until she was 90, Mom paired visits to me in New York with an appointment with her stylist. “I don’t trust anyone in Florida,” she said.
The last time I saw her, she had her eyes closed most of the time. I tried to get her to respond, anything to convince me she still recognized me. “Mom,” I kept repeating, “do you know my name?”
“No,” she finally said, “but your hair looks nice.”
It was her way of saying “I love you.”
Candy Schulman is a writer whose essays have appeared in many publications. Follow her on twitter @candyschulman.
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