\”When you were born,\” my mother used to tell me, \”you had so much hair that as soon as the midwife cleaned you up she put a bow in it. It was so long,\” she went on, \”that it covered the tops of your ears, which was a good thing, because they had hair growing on them too.\”
Fortunately the ear hair soon fell off, but the rest of it hung on and provided the refrain of my childhood. \”Just look at it,\” my four aunts and my grandmothers would sigh, commiserating with my mother, \”what on earth can you do with all that hair?\” Even the fishwives and the vegetable vendors in the market would exclaim over it, with the mixture of horror and grudging admiration usually reserved for natural disasters.
As a little kid I wore my hair short, scraped back off my forehead and fastened with a bow. My mother, who in another century would have made a fine phrenologist, believed that a large forehead was a sign of intelligence, so until I left home for graduate school I astounded the world with my broad and rather bumpy forehead.
In preparation for entering first grade, however, my mother let my hair grow long enough to be tamed into braids. Every morning, to tease out the knots that had formed during the night, she would insert the comb next to my scalp and tug firmly downward, then proceed to the next tangle while I protested sleepily. The actual braiding took considerable effort, due again to the volume she was dealing with–think of braiding hawsers. The result was a pair of thick, short, stiff braids that would come undone at the slightest provocation.
|In the Amazon, with a marmoset on my shoulder, my right braid coming undone as usual. There is another one just like it behind my left ear.|
I longed to wear my hair the way the older girls wore it, in a single braid draped fashionably over one shoulder. But no matter how hard I tried, I never could force my hair into one braid. Nor could I wear it in a pony tail, since they didn\’t make bands wide enough to hold it.
On special occasions I was allowed to wear my hair loose, which I thought made me look beautiful. I loved not feeling the weight of the braids with each head movement, and I wanted to wear it that way all the time, but my mother demurred, because of the knot issue. \”Besides,\” she said, \”when you wear it loose you look like a lion.\”
Managing my hair continued to be a problem through my adolescence, but I was saved by the arrival of the bubble style popularized by Jackie Kennedy. Unlike my friends, who had to tease and spray their hair to make it stand up, I barely had to touch mine. Then in the late sixties, when everybody started wearing their hair loose and long, I all but gave myself a crew cut.
Over the following decades my hair gradually simmered down. I was surprised when I could run a brush through it, as opposed to needing a sturdy wide-toothed comb. I was shocked when I managed to fasten my pony tail with a single large barrette. Now I treasure every strand that still clings to my scalp.
But thinking of all the thinning and braiding and fastening that went on for all those years, I wonder what would have happened if I had put my foot down and worn my long hair loose and wild, sticking out in all directions and making me look, and perhaps act, like a lion?