My baby girl sits on the bathroom counter, body facing the mirror, hands grabbing at hair elastics, lotion, and whatever else is in reach. I drape the towel over her shoulders and unravel yesterday’s braids, now fuzzy from a toddler’s day of play. Every girl with hair like my daughter’s or mine experiences the beginnings of this type of hair routine. Our tightly coiled strands stretch in multiple directions, sprouting from our heads like proud branches of a mighty tree with roots extending to Jamaica, India, and the African continent. My fingers slowly massage coconut oil into these dense locks, while the comb prepares her hair for four braids. I anticipate the beginning of her tears.
And the tears come.
Not immediately, though. First her palms press against her head, preventing my comb from pulling the tangled strands. My fingers part each section into three smaller ones, and I commence braiding. My hands work cautiously, timidly, while I hum nursery rhymes to quiet her antsy body. I’m tempted to leave the strands loose and free, but if I choose that route, a war with tangles looms, one that will result in her hysterical screams, her pleading eyes, and, ultimately, the possibility of having to cut the resistant snags. For a not-yet-two-year-old and her cautious mother, it’s much easier to fight these minor daily battles than to wage a massive hair war. Sometimes, when I reach a particularly knotted lock, she jerks her head away, her eyes begin to flood, and I’m forced to begin again. Frustration is building inside me: braiding will decrease the accumulation of knots, but I wish combing the tangles didn’t hurt her. I wish the process were easier. I wish my fingers possessed greater skill. What message am I communicating as I tug and pull at her hair? Can a toddler sense affection in the hands that bring her pain?
“All done, baby girl. You look lovely!”
Her eyes meet her reflection in the glass. They begin to dance, matching her slowly unfolding smile. Her lips touch the mirror in a self-kiss that declares her image beautiful. Watching, I try to remember a time when my own child self adored the face staring back at me, before I became dissatisfied with my image, long before I found peace in the sight of my reflection once again.
But I can’t. In all my memories of childhood, nothing about my appearance brought me contentment: not my shape, not my complexion, and certainly not the hair my mother’s hands patiently braided each day.
Her hands had a sweet, floral scent from the special lotion on her bathroom counter. Its aroma, combined with the slippery scent of hair oil, tickled my nose while I sat between my mother’s legs on the stool beside her bed. One by one her fingers untwisted my braids. Morning after morning, year after year, my mother combed and braided my hair while I stared in the mirror. I’m still not entirely sure what occurred between us in those moments. We had conversations, of course, perhaps about spelling words or friendships. There was talk of chores, I am sure. But these are memories I can only see the edges of. I remember my mother’s hands, though, moving through my hair like those of a skilled surgeon. Even in the midst of a busy morning, she always made time to unravel, brush, and re-braid. It would be years before I fully comprehended the message her fingers were imparting. Instead, my eyes looked sadly into the mirror, unsatisfied.
The mirror reminded me that my braids looked nothing like the streamers of hair flowing through my classroom at school. Every girl there seemed to have hair as straight as the lines on my notebook paper. I wanted that hair. Mine was the single brown face amid the white in my class photos, but it was my hair that drew the attention. To the amazement of my classmates, my braids had the power to hold their shape without the aid of pesky hair elastics. To my humiliation, when several girls declared that people like me put oil in their hair, I had to admit they were right. I wanted to explain why. I wanted them to understand. But their repulsed expressions silenced me.
Each curious comment was further proof that my hair would never conform to the smooth strands of my peers. Even in fourth and fifth grade, I could piece together the subtle messages about beauty and belonging that permeated my classroom and school -- and would ultimately confront me out in the world. My braids were like thick arrows, daily pointing out my failure to meet those standards.
Just after my eleventh birthday, my mother finally agreed to let me exchange my coiled mass for chemically straightened hair. Her fingers abandoned our daily braiding sessions, embracing blow dryers and curling irons instead. My eyes lost their sullen expression; I was sure I’d found the beginnings of happiness with my hair.
Over the next 11 years, I tried bangs, straight hair, hot curlers, layers. My hair traveled the gamut of styles, but my heart was never quite satisfied with my appearance. My mother’s hands were a constant, willing presence as I experimented with different looks, lengths, and hair processes. Then, late one evening towards the end of college, I found myself staring in the mirror again. The straight hair framing my face burdened me, as if great weights were attached to each strand. I’d been feeling unsettled and weary for months, and I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps constantly comparing my appearance to others’ was troubling me? Maybe I was exhausted from using chemicals to force my hair into something it wasn’t?
My hands touched the cold metal of my curling iron. It had curled my chemically straightened hair year after year. Raising my hands to my head, I ran my fingers through my smooth mane. As I stood there, looking in the mirror as I had done so many times, a verse fragment began to reverberate in my mind like a voice echoing through a tunnel. Fearfully and wonderfully made. Fearfully and wonderfully made. I breathed out a long sigh. Suddenly, the very hair I had spent years wanting looked as fake as the synthetic material framing a doll’s face.
In that moment of surrender, I understood something I had never truly grasped: my faith required me to see myself as part of divine creation. I would never find peace by changing my appearance, I realized. And so, after years of fighting my looks, I finally began to accept myself: my shape, my complexion -- and my hair. It was time to revert to my naturally springy coils. And my mother’s hands were still there, willing to help braid.
My daughter and I visit my mother’s home, where it’s been years since she last braided my hair. But the hair accessories I remember still remain. Perhaps their presence signifies my mother’s silent denial of a life now void of morning braiding sessions. Or maybe those accessories serve as her tributes to daughters now grown. More likely, though, she keeps them in the hope -- now fulfilled -- of little girl feet running through her house once more.
I watch her gently pull, brush, part, and braid my daughter’s coils as if she were made of porcelain. My baby’s tears fall for my mother the way they do for me. But my mother has the confident fingers of a master artist, while I am still an amateur. I study her technique, trying to learn how to make this process easier for my daughter, how I can be better.
As my mother applies oil to my daughter’s scalp and uses the brush to create even parts, I see the tenderness in her able hands, communicating a deep love for the little girl between her knees. Her fingers say that my daughter is worth the time, she is worth the effort; she is loved. It was the same message her fingers told me, I realize. My mother’s desire to ensure my even parts and neat braids were her way of teaching me to see beauty and worth in my reflection -- even if I questioned it.
Later that day, my mother and I clutch mugs of tea. Stillness fills the house as my daughter naps in the bedroom of my past. While we drink our tea my mother shares her joys and regrets about motherhood. Her words meander through the hazy steam from our cups and find their way to my ears. Sometimes, my mother tells me, she expected me to understand what she was trying to teach merely through her actions. Now, she confesses, she wishes she had augmented those lessons with words, had made her meaning more clear.
My mother’s regrets make me consider what I hope to teach my own daughter as I unravel her braids. Perhaps it isn’t enough for me to set aside time each day for her hair. The act of massaging oil into her scalp and twisting her strands into braids may only whisper the message I want to communicate, a whisper she won’t hear until she has the maturity to silence the cacophony of opinions ringing in every woman’s ears.
Thinking of my mother and my daughter, I envision the years ahead, as my fingers become more skilled. Each day when my daughter sits in front of me, staring at her reflection, I will do more than braid. I’ll add words to the message my mother taught me through her fingers. As one braiding session folds into the next, I will tell stories of the rich heritage in every strand of my daughter’s hair. With each gentle tug at her tangles, I’ll tell her that her curls form part of divine creation. The words I share and the time I give my daughter will remind a baby, then a child, then a woman, that she, too, is loved. Not because of what she looks like, but because of who she is.
I will part her hair into three strands. As I weave them together, I will speak of my mother, my daughter, and me: three generations entwined, passing along a message of love through the simplicity of braided hair.