You will not see my hair upswept in a sleek chignon, exposing the swanlike arch of my neck. I will never be elegant, or imposing. When you have curly hair (and especially if, like me, you combine it with being vertically challenged - that is to say, very short), you can, at most, aspire to simply being cute, and frequently disheveled, on which occasions you will radiate the glamor of a sheepdog corralling obstinate farm animals in a downpour.
My ancestors were Israelites banished from their land during the Babylonian exile 2500 years ago. They settled in what is modern-day Iraq and only returned circa 1950. My excessively curly hair represents centuries of Semitic heritage, and just a hint of complacency.
The story of my life is punctuated by episodes of really, really bad hair. The formative trauma of my early years was a haircut when I was 11 that transformed my formerly long, glorious bottle curls into a frizzy layered pouf that surrounded my head like a malevolent fungus. My legacy from this era is a series of photographs of a small self-conscious face peering out from beneath something that is a cross between an Afro, a mullet, and a broom shrub in flower (this last bit of imagery gleaned from a nature walk that immediately brought years of struggle with a round brush and a diffuser vividly to mind), generally clothed in something containing pleats. It was not my most attractive period.
Later, in the full flower of teenage rebellion, I would painstakingly straighten my hair with a blowdryer every day and tease it into a monument to 80s kitsch. I would pump the equivalent of a few dozen ozone holes worth of aerosol hairspray in an effort to tame my hair into submission, bend it to my will. And I would succeed, for a time. But sooner or later my hair, in the course of going about its daily business, would encounter a few too many drops of moisture. And that would be all the impetus needed to gleefully cast off its shackles, firmly reassert its authority over both me and gravity, and spring impossibly up in the air, simultaneously mocking and defying us both to do a damn thing about it.
Later would come a succession of bad haircuts at expensive salons, after which I would have to go around for weeks wearing a hat and pretending it was just a silly affectation instead of what it really was: dire fucking necessity. Once I removed the hat for a guy who had, hitherto, expressed romantic interest in me. He looked at me for a long moment, drinking it all in; and once the ugly enormity of it dawned, offered a single, comprehensive, "Oh," and never mentioned the hat again. We never progressed beyond friendship.
When I was laboring with my first child and the nurse told me she was crowning, my first question was, "Does she have any hair?" It turned out she didn't, much, just a sparse downiness on a cone-shaped head, the result of a forceps delivery. But by her first birthday, it was apparent that this was to be a fine set of tresses. She is turning five this month, and her hair independently forms a shock of perfect, tight little ringlets that reach to her shoulders. When it is wet, her hair falls to her waist. It has never been cut.
But like all good things, it comes with a cost.
When she wakes up in the morning, her curls protrude at right angles to her head and she most strongly resembles a dandelion. Taming them is an arduous process that involves loads of conditioner, two combs (wide- and narrow-toothed), a round brush, lots of water, and the occasional shedding of tears (both hers and mine). But she feels the value of it, and is resigned to the suffering as a necessary by-product of the oeuvre that is her hair. She will examine it carefully in any reflective surface, like the windows of parked cars, and spend hours adorning it with an assortment of headbands, clips, elastics, and barrettes. When playing by herself or with friends, she will eschew any activity likely to mess it up. When she is complimented on her hair by perfect strangers, as she invariably is, she replies, with the slightly weary air of a starlet haunted by her fame, "I know."
Our mutually curly hair serves as an unmistakeable indicator, when we are together, that we are mother and daughter. Often, well-meaning people (always women) will compliment our hair and say, "But I bet you hate it! You probably wish you had straight hair! It's always like that."
And I will smile politely, and answer, "Actually, no. We don't."
Cross-posted at http://cowbird.com/story/24578