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.
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!”
“When you’re older, I’ll teach you,” I promised my three-year-old niece.
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.
Carrie Newcomer sings,
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.”
A mandala for my mama.