in which you washed my hair in the kitchen sink
When I was five, I wouldn’t let a single person near my hair. My mother had to go out and buy me an expensive bristle brush designed for sensitive scalps. She gave me a peek at it in the car as we drove home. “It’s a magic brush,” she told me. “A magitch brush,” my dad would correct with a wink.
Still, hair-brushing time always filled me with dread. In a sudden burst of toddler witticism, I compared the process to airplanes flying into the back of my head. My mother and my nanny Marcy had to get creative. In a particularly successful method, I would wrap my arms around the hairbrusher in question and holler into her shirt as she teased out the snarls. In another approach, I would flip my head upside down and stand with the blood rushing to the tips of my ears as my tangles were torn apart. My dad lacked the courage to even try. On the mornings he was in charge of my hair, he spent half an hour gingerly skimming the brush somewhere over my head, leaving a knot hidden at the nape of my neck.
My mother lost her hair twice. Every morning, she would wake up to another nest on her pillow, her hope to be spared shattered like broken eggshells. I was too young to grasp the gravity of this grief. I wrote her a poem as a peace offering, and then cut off my own hair to my shoulders three times. And while she fretted over her scarves, I admired them. She picked the most beautiful colors: blue with white-lined diamonds, swirls of autumn painted with the browns and reds of dying leaves, lilac stained with deep purples.
When her hair grew back the first time, it arrived in curls. My mother taught herself to tame it with her hair dryer and various brushes, the scariest of which I dubbed the Red Brush. On weekday mornings in the winter, I would wake up to a pitch black sky and the distant croak of crows. I’d burrow under my blankets, listening to the sound of running water from down the hall. The house was dark but for the soft light from the bathroom, and it was a comfort knowing someone else was up, that she would soon raise the heat, flick on the lights, and sing me awake. It was a comfort knowing that my mother was standing in front of the steamy mirror, wrapped in a towel and curling her bangs, playing with her hair until cancer skulked away, defeated.
I taught myself to braid after she died. She had showed me the basics – three pieces, weave under, over, under again – but I had never mastered it on my own. Even ponytails were beyond my ability. I spent ages in front of the mirror each morning, screaming in frustration. I worked at it until my scalp groaned in pain. Caring about the inconsequential was my means of survival. But now when I pull at my hair, I don’t worry about it being perfect. Instead, I remember the way my mother twirled her finger around the wisps of my hair when she told me that she loved the way they curled.
On those mornings when we were running late and my hair was in no state to make its daily appearance, my mother would wash it in the kitchen sink. She’d rest a towel behind my neck and tell me to lean back, the tips of my hair dangling near the drain. I can still feel her fingers on my head as they traced rhythmic circles from one side to the other. I can still hear the squeak of air as she squeezed the shampoo bottle and made fireworks of soap bubbles float around us.
Anna McLoud Gibbs is a freshman at Harvard College. She has not yet declared a major. She is from Ipswich, Massachusetts.