I braced myself for the familiar sting of the plastic comb against some vulnerably-exposed area of my head, neck or shoulders.
A few seconds passed and I slowly opened my clenched fists and eyes, relaxed my hunched shoulders, and tried my best not to move as I silently praised God for another escape of the rod (or, in this case, comb) of correction. I’d had plenty of time to get the energy and jitters out, as I was always third in the line-up to get my hair done – whether it was braids, a perm, a Jheri-curl. I believe I benefited from being able to watch my older sisters pass through the guillotine before me.
I would watch intently, taking mental notes to help myself somehow endure the coming trial that was clearly unavoidable:
“Don’t try to look at the tv…it is too high and every time she tries, she gets popped. I’ve already seen this movie anyway… Or maybe I can ask for some pillows so I am higher…”
“See, she’s crying too hard and so it’s making her head jerk…try not to cry…it ain’t helpin’ anyway…”
“I have to at least make sure she gets to braiding the back before I fall asleep ‘cause then I won’t have to wake up to move my head for a long time…or get popped for not moving it fast enough…”
I decided that my best modes of defense were to, first, prepare myself by knowing what style was going to be attempted and thus determine the appropriate body configurations to allow the most ease and comfort; and second, to do my best to fall asleep at some point, which always seemed to shorten the duration of my personal trial. I also resolved that I would NEVER be the one to inflict such pain on any other person, especially one whom I called “daughter”. I knew somehow that there was a way to style hair as unruly and difficult as mine without causing such torment and trauma.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew there were some things that were out of my mom’s control (or out of the stylist’s control, in the case of the Jheri curl).
One sister, the one with the easiest and softest grade of hair, was what we call “tender-headed.” Before the comb even entered her personal space, she would wretch her body and move away, beginning to wince and whine when the rubber bands weren’t yet fully removed.
I admit, as I watched her, I wondered what most of her fuss was about. The comb didn’t clink as it moved through her strands; it didn’t frequently get stuck, with the picks breaking off into her coils; it didn’t sound like gravel being raked, nor did our mom have to take as many breaks to shake her hands and get the feeling back into her fingertips. When she was finished – in a timeframe that was only comparable to mine because her hair was triple the length – her edges weren’t pulled nearly as tight and her braids, twists or curls hung gently, bounced softly and didn’t have a fraction of the stiffness that came with my styles. In short, she had “pretty” or “good” hair.
Honestly, I felt she was a little dramatic.
Then there was the fact that there were three of us. THREE. Not including our mother, who I now understand simply didn’t have the will or strength to include herself in wash day.
You often hear the adage “You saved the best for last.” In our case, our mom simply saved the youngest for last. In terms of my hair type, I will refer to it as the “EST.” As in the tightEST, coarsEST, strongEST, difficultEST of the bunch.
Now, I don’t say this in the sense of comparison with my sisters’ hair. I say this in regard to the ways in which black hair is described.
I’m not sure if 4Z is a thing, but that’s what I have, at least in MOST sections of my hair. I used to think Don King’s hair was styled that way; then I realized after a few months into my “natural” journey, that he and I indeed have the same Divine stylist. My curl pattern changes from being extremely tight along the sides and at the back to being nearly straight at the front and on the top (for a visual, search Don King circa 1990). With this reality, the style that some are able to deem a “wash & go” has, in my case, relegated itself as a “wash & NO.”
I learned something in early adulthood that made me see my mom’s challenge from a different angle.
I heard that when you are faced with a number of tasks, it is important to do the most difficult task first. This is encouraged with the understanding that when you start, your energy, will, and attention are at higher levels; and so, as you progress through the tasks, coming to the end you will find something that is intrinsically easier and you are more likely to finish it well.
If done in the opposite order, you will come to the end, and having used most of your energy and will power to complete the earlier and easier tasks, you will either not complete the final task, or you will do so in a way that is lackluster.
So it was each session of us getting our hair done.
Saved for last due to age, I was repeatedly forcing our mother (who was understandably spent from the toil of styling two other heads) to use whatever she had left to complete the EST of all heads.
Granted, I didn’t choose the order and I don’t believe she thought much of it; but in retrospect, I imagine that by the time she got to my head, it was a blessing to us both that I had done my research. It ensured that I would move and cry the least, turn my head and body at the appropriate times and at the correct angles, and that overall, I would sit the stillEST.
It begs to be said, despite our understanding of what it required of us, we all loved getting our hair done.
The familiar sensations produced feelings of both anticipation and apprehension – from the rushing water to the warmth of the pressing comb to the “burn” from the relaxer. The aromatic products and the scent of heated hair seemed to form a comforting cloud in the center of the room. We were in a space where it was safe to let our hair down and to let it stick up, to laugh and lament with one another, to be girls and to become women.
In that space, we learned lessons our mother once learned.
We learned that taking time to care for how we looked impacted how we felt and how we acted. We learned to love ourselves and to support one another. We learned to endure to reach an end that made a difficult process worthwhile. We learned that strength and beauty are built in stillness.
Surely we learned more through those times than we realized.
In a matter of hours, our heads were transformed, usually from a state that begged for attention to one that commanded it. Glancing excitedly in the mirror to survey the finished product, we were repeatedly reminded that the confidence welling up as we studied our reflections was worth the time and considerable pain. We then faced the world stronger, more confident, more grateful; with our scalps a little sore, but every other part of us a lot better for it.
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