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braiding my mother’s hair

Late on a Saturday morning I take my mother’s hair between my fingers and begin to braid. Mom doesn’t like it when hair falls into her eyes, and rotator cuff surgery has nixed her usual styling strategies. This turns out to be the number one thing I do to help when I visit: hair styling.

Why do the tears come to my eyes? Is it the feel of her course locks – so much like my own – against my skin? Is it the earthy beauty of Carrie Newcomer‘s voice playing from the stereo?

When I was six, I sat on the concrete of our apartment building’s courtyard in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. I can remember the vast blue sky and the shouts of other children as they played. On the bench behind me, Mom sat watching as her friend Nina Kendrick showed her how to French braid my hair.

After that, my scalp became Mom’s daily canvas. Single braids, half-braids, side ponytails, buns. Tibetan monks trace intricate mandalas into the sand and then sweep them away, paying tribute to the beauty and the impermanence of life. Women braid each other’s hair.

a few of Mama's pieces, scrapbook style

On Friday I’d wrangled my overgrown locks into a single plait and given Mom two small braids before braiding Lydia’s hair. “Look!” my mother told her granddaughter. “Auntie Hannah French braided all our hair today!”

Mom and Lydia

“When you’re older, I’ll teach you,” I promised my three-year-old niece.

Lydia and me

I never wanted anything but long, long hair until the summer before eighth grade.It never occurred to me that I kept it long mostly because I loved our ritual time together each morning. Even in high school Mom would do my hair for important occasions. Just last summer, she braided my hair as a treat when we spent a week at the lake.

Mama braids my hair at the lake

Carrie Newcomer sings,

If holy is a sphere
That cannot be rendered
There is no middle place
Because all of it is center

I let the tears brim as I finish the second small braid, then weave a third. The funny thing is, I can’t remember ever braiding Mom’s hair before this weekend. The tears come because I know how lucky I am. She’s here and I’m here. We have hair and fingers and a new day.

“Oo, let me take a picture of this so you can see, Mom,” I say. “I made three braids and braided them into one.”

three braids into one

A mandala for my mama.

4 thoughts on “braiding my mother’s hair”

  1. How beautiful, how tender, dear Hannah. How grateful you remind us to be. The art of braiding passed on from generation to generation …yes, “there is no middle place because all of it is center”. Love you.

  2. Loved Carrie & Krista’s chat, just like I loved this entry.
    Echoes of so many talks we have had over these years.
    Precious and timely.
    Thank you, my Hanner

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