Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Lice Season

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The lice bring us together, my daughter and me. When I see the translucent eggs, I know I am a bad mother. "Lice season," says the school nurse. My daughter's hair, dark brown, shows them well. Holding each strand in the sunlight to examine, I take some enjoyment from touching her head, touching her again. Lately, she does not want me in the old "mother" way.
Or perhaps that should be the young mother way when smooth-stone satisfaction came from feeding her, my breasts so full they ached, and the sweet relief as they were emptied. And when the rise and fall of a sleeping chest was checked every few moments as she lay beached between two pillows, a curving question mark.

Traces remain. When my children have had meat and carrots and milk, I have that same satisfaction. And, who am I kidding, a sleeping eight year-old's breathing needs to be checked. But it must be done in secret. These days, as I pass her room, I enter among the book piles and drawings tentatively and ask the questions of a dullard. Behind her green, brown-flecked eyes, she is a deer, ears pricked at the edge of the woods. All I have is a human's freeze-tag stillness. She spots me from a mile away and bolts.

For two years I have volunteered in her classroom, helping the kids write stories. Inevitably, one of my friends will say, "I bet she's proud of you." But my daughter does not praise me. I really have no idea what she thinks of me. Sometimes, as I'm about to leave for an appointment or a party, I ask her what she thinks of what I'm wearing. Let's call this fishing expedition what it is. I don't want her opinion. I want her to say what I used to say to my own mother--that she was beautiful and perfect. (Of course, later I found out my mother wasn't perfect, so maybe it's just as well my daughter seems to know this already.) Rather than a gushing compliment about my appearance, she gives me advice. She stands back for a better look, her arms across her chest, one hand holding her chin. After careful scrutiny she suggests different shoes (almost always the strappy sandals she loves) or perhaps my leopard belt or a scarf. Advice I never take.

The lice die but the nits go on for weeks. The school nurse clears her, but I am more thorough. After school we sit by the sunniest window, I bend over her head picking, picking. "Sanchari says you're pretty," she offers. I have always been fond of this classmate, whose stories about a secret tree in her front yard and her mother's cooking whistle and tap with sound, but now I love her.

That evening, my five year-old son has had his shower. He skitters from tub to hallway, a darting waterbug skimming the surface of the pond. My daughter seems to find herself between that freewheeling pond and expulsion from Eden. She skins off her clothes-jeans wadded and grungy, shirt tossed to the side-yet she covers herself carefully as she sidles to the shower. Afterward, she is clean and new, a towel turban on her head and a robe with ribbon at the neck. I trim her fingernails and toenails and tell her that her length once fit neatly into my lap.

"It was easier when I could look down as if they were my own fingers and toes," I say.

Now she sits on the toilet with me on the bathtub edge, and props her foot on my knee. I can't tell where her shell-thin nail ends and the toe begins. She shifts her legs to improve my hold, and I am stunned to see the beginnings of dark hair growing between her legs.

"Sorry," she says covering herself not from embarrassment but to shield me as if I am the child.

"I was surprised. That's all."

"I saw it on your face," she says. "It's been like that for awhile."

How long has it been since I've seen her body? I feel an urgency to tell my husband. Later, my daughter and I are standing at the bathroom mirror, as I dry her hair. The hairdryer blows loud and warm around us. I look down at the wide-open plains of her clean face, past her smooth chest and rounded belly. The hair below is no longer visible and I realize that I have seen her body all these days, yet from above. My vantage has been a blind curve.

The lice live close to the scalp and lay their eggs near the root - hatching, growing, laying. I think of them as so many tiny mothers trying to keep their kin, their kind alive. I have my own system to root them out. Some use poison. Others drown them in hair conditioner. I cut the egg away completely. Strand by strand I sift through my daughter's hair. Using a tiny pair of scissors, I snip the strand and drop it into a Zip-lock bag. I hold the bag up to the light and we cannot help but be fascinated. We lean in together to peer at the sesame-seed-shaped egg, gray or pearl white. Sometimes the eggs are as empty as a lasso. Just the trace of the body that scampered away, crawled deep into my daughter's thick hair to make its way in its lice world, its hair and scalp world. But I will find it. I will root it out for my kin, my kind, my love, my daughter.

Her hair is silky beneath my fingers as I work, but in several weeks when the lice are gone, the single hairs I snip now will sprout up rough and coarse. As one does a scab or scar, she will run her small-not so small anymore-hand over and over these slender shoots, absent-mindedly worrying them with her fingertips. I will look across the room and we will exchange a glance, remembering the time so recent but now long gone when we sat together each day, close again, touching again.


Andrea Jarrell‘s essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column and “Motherlode” blog; Narrative MagazineBrain,Child MagazineFull Grown PeopleThe Manifest-StationLiterary Mama; and The Washington Post, as well as the anthologies My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories about Leaving and Losing Friendships and So Glad They Told Me: Women on Getting Real About Motherhood (2016). Her forthcoming memoir will be published by Booktrope.


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