My mother was never happier than right after she’d had her hair done. Done as in testing the center of a baked layer cake. Done as in having her hair washed, rolled, heated, styled, then secured with a shellacking of AquaNet.
She told me once that her most innovative ideas came to her while sitting under the celadon dome of a hair dryer at the Lamar Park Beauty Salon. Wrapped beneath its purring warmth, she browsed articles from Dr. Spock, oracles from Betty Friedan, or considered better recipes for stuffed shrimp and tomato aspic. Neighborhood mothers nestled alongside her, their foreheads swaddled with cords of cotton. Seen together, the women appeared as space age crones lined up on a royal dais.
Looking back now, I realize this hour every week was her only time for taking care of herself.
She’d return home refreshed by her new coiffure, chin up, shoulder’s back, as she whipped up a melange of carrots and corn to serve with broiled redfish and mango mousse. If late, she’d toss freezer-hard Swanson’s chicken potpies in the oven. Either way, our mother beamed at the dinner table in her new “do.”
I could not have anticipated then how important her children’s hair would become later. After all, she had tolerated a wide range of hair styles during our youth, never once commenting on her sons’ hanks of untrimmed locks, or her daughters’ loose, waist length hair.
But once she grew to the age in which she could no longer drive to her beauty salon, our mother’s meticulous scrutiny zeroed in on her children. Even my brother’s eyebrows were not off limits.
“Do me a favor,” she’d say to Scott when he dropped by. “take your fingers and smooth your eyebrows like this.” Mother would lift two forefingers and swipe them across her own thinning brows.
Later, as she grew too weak from indolent leukemia to have her hair cut, her standards only increased. Every time we three sisters flew in from out of state, sporting a variety of new cuts and highlights, one thing never changed: after we stepped out of our rental car, we would stand in the driveway before greeting our mother and ask, ‘How’s my hair?” Regardless of any last minute touch-ups, our mother’s warm embrace was always followed by a closer scrutiny. She’d eye one of us and sigh, “Please go brush your hair.”
We were not alone. In addition to our hairstyles, our mother grew increasingly concerned with Hillary Clinton’s. If Hillary, reporting from around the globe, appeared in a televised conference with her hair slicked back in a ponytail or wearing a retro 1960’s flip, my mother’s expression seemed to collapse. She’d bring a finger up to her mouth. “That,” she’d say, biting her fingernail, “is a most unfortunate hair style.”
For a split second I feared for our world.
I know how the sounds. But she was born in 1924 and grew up forced to navigate the Mad Men era. In spite of those roadblocks, she never stopped believing in the power of women to be agents for change. As a feminist before it had a name, she broke through barriers as a member of the first class of women admitted to Yale Divinity School in the 1940’s. As a life long member of the YWCA, she served on its national board in NYC to eliminate racism. As a blonde-haired bilingual child of the south Texas borderlands, she worked as a fearless civic leader promoting equal education and school desegregation.
She helped make the world a better place while she fulfilled her role as a minister’s wife and mother of five. She just never could neglect her hair.
During her final week of life, under the caring hands of hospice, I arrived one morning at the foot of her bed, teary- eyed. She had stopped eating and drinking. She had only slept these last days, eyes closed, floating in and out of consciousness. Each breath might be her last. I reached beneath thin blankets to touch her feet and was relieved to feel their warmth. I shook a bottle of her favorite lotion, bent over the end of her bed, and began to massage and moisturize her heels and ankles. As I touched her, I reflected on all the places these feet had carried us, the many journey’s she’d taken us on. I would miss her terribly. Tears fell down my face, and then a voice said unto me, “Did you know your hair is sticking up in the back?”
I glanced up. My mother had cracked open an eye- with that very familiar look.
“What? Why are your laughing?” Mother said as I fell upon her bed, laughing and crying. “Has some body else told you that your hair was sticking up in the back?”
” No, Mom. You’d be the first. I’ll take care of it right quick,” I said, grateful that my hair had raised her from the dead.
When I returned to her room, her eyes were once again closed, her face at peace.
A friend said,”Perhaps your mother’s focus on hair was not so much about hair, but more about what having attractive hair had meant to her: a time out. Taking precious time to refresh herself for the journey ahead.” Or, as Molly Ivins once put it,”While you seek to change the world, you best have a good time doing it, else you are gonna burn out.”
Perhaps this wisdom lay at the heart of our mother’s yearning for all of us. As we strive to nurture those in our midst, as we work to leave the world a better place, never forget to take time out for ourselves.