Hair

The following is an essay I wrote as an example of a memoir for m fourth and fifth graders.

I looked down at the hairbrush and saw a big wad of hair. “Gross”, I thought. “Do I really shed that much hair?” Sitting on the bus on the way to school, another snapshot of hair sprung up in the forefront of my memory. It was the image of a chunk of hair caught in a hairbrush, but this time the brush had twice as much hair. In fact, it looked a bit like a rodent. It looked… disturbing.

I looked up from the brush and saw my mother’s face. She looked sullen, defeated. In her other hand was a pair of scissors and a comb. “Will you cut it?” she asked. “It’s itching me, and it’s falling out in bigger chunks.” My mom had cancer. She always tried not to act like it was a big deal, but once her hair started falling out from the chemo, I could tell she was beginning to feel irritated. Not in a sad, sick puppy kind of way, but more so in a stubborn, I’m stronger-than-I-look-please-don’t-pity-me kind of way. She and I both knew that once she was bald, that look would follow her everywhere. ‘

I took the scissors, looked her square in the eye and replied, “It will be my honor.” She knew I was being dramatic and playful by my overly-formal tone and grand arm gestures. We both chuckled, as if we were trying to convince ourselves that this was not a big deal, it would be okay.

My mom’s hair was about shoulder-length at the time. It was honey vanilla blond and thick like rope. I fought my intuition to set the scissors down and back away. I began to snip. The sound of the scissors was muffled, slightly- we chatted as I combed and cut. My mom made jokes about me hacking her hair off, I tried to reassure her that it was fine- I had done this with my Barbies a dozen times. We giggled and gabbed like girlfriends. I remember thinking how odd all of this was. I looked down at the pieces of hair on the ground and began to feel apprehensive about soon having to see my mother as a bald woman. Then I began to feel guilty about feeling apprehensive- after all, this was not about me.

Finally, after I had cut it as short as she wanted it (before going to the hairdresser for a final buzz), I turned her around to face herself in the mirror. She turned, and paused for an excruciatingly long moment. She was a deer in the headlights. In that second, I asked myself, “Should I tell her? Should I tell her how bad she looks? Oh no….” All of a sudden, an enormous grin emerged on my mom’s face. She broke out into hysterical laughter… and I did too. I’m talking about tear-inducing, deep belly, could barely breathe kind of laughter. She exclaimed in between laughs, “I… look… like…” She took a big gulp of air…” BILLY RAY CYRUS!!!” I could barely see through the tears in my eyes from laughing so hard, but she was right. I had given my mother a mullet. It looked awful. I exclaimed, “Business in the front… party in the back!” We laughed for what felt like an hour. Finally, we gathered ourselves and she looked at me, silently agreeing that maybe this wasn’t so bad. And in that moment she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen.

Hair is a funny thing. We take it for granted- sometimes it hold meaning, sometimes it tells the world things you don’t want it to know about you, like you overslept, you had a hat on for half the day, you don’t know how to use a curling iron, you have cancer. Sometimes, though, even when hair tells the world something, you can look it right in the eye and say hair is just hair. You can let things that are out of your control make you sit back and give up, or you can shake them off and choose to have a good, old fashioned, pee- your pants kind of laugh. I looked up at my hand while sitting on the 38 Geary. Something had been tickling my finger- it was one loose, long strand wrapped around my thumb. I picked it up, let it fall, and felt a smile spread across my face.

Owls and Mama Bears

My students (4th and 5th grade) are currently writing memoirs. They are so real and so thoughtful, and they have me feeling both nostalgic and lazy… the perfect formula to get me back on the blog. So here I am.

My mom told me when I was little that her mom had died when she was 26. I remember hearing that number and feeling like this was normal- my mom was a grown-up, most people’s parents die when they are grown-ups, so how was this any different? Now at the ripe age of 23 I could not imagine losing my mother (actually, that’s not true- I have imagined it, in moments of absolute self-torture. I would not recommend this.) I realize 26 is quite young to lose a parent, not that there is really any good time to lose somebody you love. My mom’s mom missed out on so many good memories, and my mom had to go through the aches and pains of motherhood without a mom to call for help.

A psychic once told me that my mother’s mom, Joanne, sometimes likes to sit at the foot of my bed and spend time with me. I find this comforting, so I refuse to spend any energy wondering if this could be true, and have chosen to occasionally acknowledge her presence, by sending a little hello into the universe, with the idea that she hears it, wherever she may be.

Joanne, because it is almost mother’s day, I want to let you know that I wish I could know you as my grandmother. I know you were a loving, beautiful woman because you raised the person who taught me compassion and integrity, the woman who runs with the wolves, the fighter, the nurturer. I am going to assume that you are peering over my shoulder as I write this so that I may share a few of my clearest Mom moments with you.

When I was seven, Mom had this luscious garden full of tomatoes, all kinds of herbs, even these carrots called golf ball carrots. I had gotten this stupid Barbie head for my birthday or something (it was the size of a real human head, and it was TERRIFYING- more on that later), and I was obsessed with cutting the hair on that thing. One day I came home from school and The Head was nowhere to be found. I was equally afraid that I would get in trouble for being irresponsible and that The Head had come alive to punish me for making her look like Billy Ray Cyrus. I remember walking downstairs after a thorough search through the upstairs- I had torn apart our family game room, and had gone through my closet and dress-up box more times than I could count. I was disheveled and exhausted. I caved. I walked to the kitchen table where Mom was reading her newspaper. I muttered something about The Head and, without looking up, she replied that ohh yes, she needed to borrow it for something. I asked what for, to which she replied simply by pointing toward the window, every so slightly, with her index finger. I looked outside, and noticed someone standing in the garden. I was exasperated. I was not feeling up to any more puzzles, I just wanted to find The Head and get it back to its spot on my desk (turned around of course, I didn’t like when it stared at me). Arriving at the garden was like that moment in a horror movie when you see the person approaching the monster and scream “NO! NO! YOU IDIOT!” at the screen. That screaming voice in my head was buried deep underneath my curiosity. Finally, I looked up. There she was. The Head. She stared at me with a bitchy little smile. She liked her new life out here, I could tell. Up on a stake with a hat, a plaid shirt and old Levi’s- hell, my mom even put frickin pearls on her- she would never be the same. She had a taste of the good life, and would not settle for my hair cut chop shop any longer. When I walked back inside, Mom simply said “What? We don’t have crows eating my tomatoes anymore.” And that was that.

At the age of sixteen, my parents had settled into pretty distinct roles. In my mind, my dad was goofy and made horrible, yet always laughable, dad jokes. My mom was responsible, warm, focused. To this day, I love when people get to experience my mother’s humor because she is dry as jerky, and correct me if I’m wrong Joanne but I think she gets this from you.

We were at the dermatologist. It had been a long day, and an hour of the dermatologist poking and prodding at my skin. Leaving the office, she told my mom and I to get a facial cleaner that was Purpose brand. She wrote it down on a note: “Purpose Cleaner.” Standing there, tired and irritated, I turned to Mom and I was surprised to see she had this little glint in her eye- you wouldn’t catch it if you didn’t know her, but Joanne, I know you can see what I mean. I looked down at the desk and I saw that she had written something. Nonchalantly, she slid the paper note down the desk and over to me. “Ready to go?” She said. I looked down: “All Purpose Cleaner.” I remember thinking in that moment that she is so subtle, so clever, so… awesome.

Happy early Mother’s Day you, Jo. Thanks for being my mom’s mom.