I lived trying to fit in. It was much more than “curly hair wasn’t in style back then.” It was: “You can’t exist.” It was: “Do not exist.” It was expressed as: “What’s wrong with your hair?” with the questioner trying not to laugh when asking.
My hair was a problem to be solved. From inside and outside the walls of my house, my hair was a symbol of something larger that had nothing and everything to do with me.
My father, as a young man, was very handsome. His hair grew in thick black waves with tiny spirals at the nape, like the springs in ballpoint pens. My hair was one hundred percent him, one hundred percent Lipsheez. Years before I was born, my parents changed the family surname to my mother’s maiden name—Gordon—less Jewish and ethnic, more aesthetic and assimilated. My mother, pretty and with fine features, had straight, thin red hair. She said her hair did not look Jewish. I’m not sure if she said this with pride, relief, or confusion. “To be beautiful you have to suffer.” This is what I was told as relatives took turns yanking my hair through a Fuller brush, because I’d do anything to get the right hair and better learn to suffer through it. There was nothing to counterbalance the sentiment that was seeded inside me, and from such an early age: There was something wrong with my hair. It was too wild. It was too out of control. It was a mop. It was a broom.
I’m 12 and getting my hair cut into a pixie. “It will make it straight,” my mother says. Length chopped into a skullcap, however, does not make it straight. My mother doesn’t like touching my hair; it’s a species she doesn’t understand. She begins to take me weekly to get it blow-dried. The stylist yanks and pulls, but I’m thankful. I don’t yet know I’m replicating an embedded pattern.
Right before I turn eight I ask my mother again to tell me the story of how I was born. I want a different ending—no, a different beginning, one that might lead to a less inevitable conclusion.
She lights a cigarette. “I missed my period.” The ashtray next to her is crammed with smoked-down stubs of extinguished cigarettes marked with coral lipstick. She doesn’t glance at me, doesn’t often look at me, or look at me for long. We are in the living room on opposite ends of the couch. The air conditioner drones. The fiery sun is melting into the Hudson beyond our tinted window shades that turn everything the amber of nicotine. My mother hides behind large sunglasses.
This confession from her throughout my life threads through my consciousness:
That her husband, my father, had gotten her pregnant. Again. Her other children were already grown. She was angry. She was passive. She could be very funny and light up a room, but about this, she never joked. She “had been gotten pregnant” was the only way to interpret her sentiment. Love or desire were not part of the equation.
This is a pattern upon which one can extrapolate other connections and relationships.
Before my senior year in high school, I go to a new stylist who does not want to blow dry my hair straight. “It will be prettier curly,” she says.
I do not know I am starved for this answer that I didn’t know was available to me.
My hair grows. I grow.
My mother again encourages me to cut my hair. Makes fun of it. So do other family members, and it’s like a three-ring circus. I don’t understand yet that it’s not my hair that is the problem. The problem now is who will be the receptacle for the shame and guilt and fury she harbors now that I’m not able or willing to hold it?
At five feet ten inches, I am taller than both my parents ever were. I look more like my mother than I ever did my father, but my hair, what people most often comment on, I got from him. The thin face, deep-set blue eyes, the mottled freckles, those are from her. I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and double back at the resemblance. But then there was my hair. Thick, dark, and curling past my shoulders; my father’s genetic gift to me.
When I was in middle school my mother told me to sleep with a stocking over my head—like a bank robber—to flatten out my hair. The next morning the crown of my head was smooth as an egg but the ends, which didn’t fit beneath the stocking, were hemmed with frizz.
It wasn’t so much the failed experiment, or the worse-looking “After” than what came “Before.” It wasn’t her laughter that confused me, but the way she laughed. And despite her seeming attempts to help, my frustration captivated her.
Today I understand: That my hair became an outward expression for my mother’s untended inner life, overgrown with weeds. I was handed something and required to take on and carry it for her.
I’ve grown to love the tresses that for years made me cry. But it was never my hair that was the problem. What is at the root is impossible to deny.