Family, Life & Living, Memories

on mothers, daughters and bad hair days

susan wannabe model“Oh Punkie! “ (That’s my nickname.) “I’m so glad to see you! You look great! I love your hair,” Mom would say every time I came to see her.

Or at least that’s what I wished she would have said. To be fair, I usually did get the “I’m so glad to see you” part. It was what invariably followed that cut like a knife.

“Your hair’s so short. What did you do to it? I like it so much better a bit longer.” Or: “Your hair’s so long… Don’t you think it’s time for a cut?” Or: “When did you start parting your hair on the left? I think it suits you better on the right, don’t you?” Or: “When did you start parting your hair on the right? It’s so cute when you do it on the left. Here let me show you…”

Yes, there has always been something wrong with my hair, it was too long, too short, too curly, too straight, too recently cut, not cut recently enough, better up, better down, and/or better the way it was last time, even though last time it had been so much better the time before that.

Yes, there has always something wrong with my hair, and clearly, by extension, there has also been something wrong with me. My hair and its not-good-enoughedness is a metaphor for me and my ongoing failure to measure up. I am a cracked and broken toddler who has somehow managed to stumble my way through 55 years of life beyond the “terrible twos.”

Sometimes I am lost and found. Other times I’m invisible. One time, in my adolescence, when my mother and I were visiting my grandmother, it was decided (certainly not by yours truly) that I should get my hair cut at my grandmother’s hairdresser.  Her name was Giselle.

Susan grade 9Like me, my hair was particularly hard to manage in my teens. In those Grade-9 days (<= see), the fashion was to have your bangs (“toupette” if you’re Quebecoise, “fringe” if you’re a Brit) hang in your eyes like a sheepdog. No doubt this drove all mothers of teenaged daughters, not just mine, crazy.

As I set off for Giselle’s, I knew it didn’t matter how short she took my bangs, they would not be short enough. Giselle razored them to what surely would have been a reasonable length, a length in keeping with the cut. But I, to please my mother and avoid a fight, asked Giselle to cut them “just a little bit shorter, please.” She complied. Reluctantly. She was a hairdresser after all. She knew hair shrinks skyward when it dries. But I was short on experience, and long on suffering my mother.

I returned to my grandmother’s house in a flood of tears, my bangs a few millimeters short of my hairline, my life, clearly, over. As I walked in the door, my grandmother clapped her hand over her mouth, and began to laugh. My mother followed suit.

“What happened to your hair?” They choked in unison. The flood became a tsunami. I raced upstairs, flung myself on Gran’s guest bed, angry, humiliated, and inconsolable. For the eternity (i.e. several weeks) it took for the disaster to repair itself, I wore my hair in a bald man’s comb-over to hide the abomination of my bangs and avert the ridicule of my classmates.

I went on to become prematurely silver in my late twenties, expanded into being a cut above during the continuum of my thirties and forties, and blossomed fully in my fifties. (Ongoing transformation is the story of my life. I wonder what the last chapter holds…?)

Mom doesn’t care so much about my hair anymore. And it sometimes takes her a minute or two to figure out who I am when I go to visit her. But once she realizes I’m related to her, that I’m part of her family (perhaps her daughter, or maybe her sister), she smiles, grateful, and says: “Hi Punkie! “ (She remembers my nickname so far.) “I’m so glad to see you!” No mention of my errant hair, even if it’s streaked with pink or purple.

Better late than never, I guess, but bittersweet all the same.


Written in spring 2013.

Subscribe to my updates here.