I was 14 or so before I grew the tops of my ears back which had been practically singed off by the dreaded hot comb. I’ve survived the beauty parlors — aka Mrs. Bank’s and Mrs. Tabb’s kitchens — where the familiar scent of bergamot was as pervasive as the aroma of chicken, fish, collards, homemade biscuits, pound cake… and pressed hair.
One day after school, when I was in the 9th grade, I decided I was too grown for ponytails and bangs. I knew that if I asked to wear an afro the answer would be “No!” After all, this was in Williamsburg, VA in the early ‘70s and we were not yet quite so hip. So without asking I did the unthinkable and broke out the shears, cutting off shoulder-blade length locks of hair in two too easy strokes.
Fortunately my father was the first one home from work that day, finding me standing in the bathroom holding two long plaits and looking helplessly like “Now what?” Realizing the noise and fury that would ensue once mom saw what I had done, he sprung into action. Understanding he couldn’t turn to the aforementioned ladies for sympathy (SHE DID WHAT TO ALL THAT HAIR?!”) he rushed me to his barber begging “Tony, help me! Do something before her mother gets home!” The result was one righteous blow out ‘fro and I was feeling mighty black and proud if I do say so myself.
There would be no more sitting between her knees for my nightly brush strokes, no more parting the rows to oil and massage my scalp as if tending her own precious garden.
We sprinted back home and in walked mom. She took one look at me and declared that from now on, “you and your hair are on your own.” Then she went to her room and stayed a while. There would be no more sitting between her knees for my nightly brush strokes, no more parting the rows to oil and massage my scalp as if tending her own precious garden.
That I think is what broke her heart, not my defiance or the loss of all those carefully cultivated locks, but rather that special time just between me and her. I didn’t realize it myself until it was too late, but I had done the deed and had cut not just my hair but a connection.
Over the years I learned how to deal with a variety of hair care products and hardware so I could look like I woke up afro fabulous without trying. Halfway through college I decided I had had enough and shaved it all off, and by the mid ‘80s I was sporting a full mane of long dreadlocks. At every iteration of style there was mom saying, “Girl, what is with your hair?” I’d declare how I was staying natural and keeping it real, but in truth, I don’t think I ever had the same love and patience for my hair as she did. Sometimes though, I just want to sit between her knees again with a comb and a pot of bergamot while she talks and strokes my hair.