Tuesday, April 28, 2009


In the film "Just Between Friends," Mary Tyler Moore, playing a new widow, is showing her mother around the business she has just bought to support herself and her children. As they talk, the elegant mother (Jane Greer) reaches up and tucks a long wisp of Moore's hair behind her ear. As they continue talking, Moore reaches up and quietly pulls her hair down where it was.

Socio-linguist Deborah Tannen could write half a book about these two gestures. So could I.

Tannen in fact has written an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times on just this subject.(http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/tannend/latimes012406.htm) Titled "My Mother, My Hair," the short essay explains why mothers of even middle-aged woman so often comment on and criticize their daughters' hair, and why the daughters are driven thereby to teeter on the brink of matricide.

"Where the daughter sees criticism, the mother sees caring. . . making a suggestion, trying to help, offering insight or advice. Isn't that a mother's job? Both are right, because caring and criticizing are bought with the same verbal currency. Any offer of help or advice — however well-intended, however much needed — implies you're doing something wrong." Just so in the scene sketched above: Greer is, in her mind, tidying up Moore's hair, but to MTM, the move is a criticism, refuted with her defiant gesture.

Tannen further explains that while mothers and daughters get on each others' nerves about all sorts of matters--clothes, childcare, careers, cooking--the topic she hears most about is hair. Her book on the overall subject is called You're Wearing That?Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.

Hair and heartache. Most women are, in their DNA, in their bloodstream, in their bone marrow, disappointed in their hair. Ninety-five days out of one hundred are "bad hair days." Sinead o'Connor, shaving her pretty head, was simply one of the first to act out the discontent. Oh, I know--it was supposed to be about politics and all that. Humbug!

Our life stories could be written in the tales of our tresses. Go ahead; think about it. I wager any woman reading this blog could recite a dozen stories, off the top of her head, so to speak, about her hair crises, and especially those in which her mother plays a sinister role.

My hair was a source of antagonism for my mother before I could even talk. My father had had a love-hate relationship with his older sister, who bossed him relentlessly, even sitting on his chest and pouring medicine down him. His favorite word to describe her was "pugnacious." He always grinned as he said the word. Bossy, pugnacious Harriet had long auburn hair, naturally curly. "She'd wash her hair, then go outside and shake her head like a dog, and the hair would ripple down her back. She dint even need ta touch it!" When, as a toddler, I grew golden curls, Dad was hopeful I'd eventually become some variety of redhead. Mother (thinning, plain brown hair) thought I was quite enough like her dismissive sister-in-law already, thank you.

Shirley Temple didn't help the cause one bit. Like thousands of other little girls of that era, I endured having my hair put up in rags every night and then combed out into fat sausage curls the next day, just like Shirley's, and the devil take the painful snarls. The crowning ribbon arranged on my head was exactly the size of the bow on Aretha Franklin's Inaugural bonnet.

When I was seven, we moved, leaving my grandmother's house. Nanny had been the one to roll up my hair each night and then comb out the curls next morning, as I sat on a footstool and yelped about tangles. No Nanny, no curls. Mom worked at a defense plant and had no time for attempts at the Shirley Temple effect. My hair, no longer golden but "dishwater blond," went straight. About that time, Toni hair products came out with the first home permanent. Mother, busy but desperate about my hair, alternated between letting me go to school au naturel or forcing me to have a smelly perm. Au naturel, my hair looked like shredded wheat; permed, it resembled lumpy oatmeal.

There was a brief, idyllic period around age 10 when I got to wear braids. I remember the braids with great fondness, and had I the hair to do it with today, I'd wear braids atop my head like Irene Donne as Mama in I Remember Mama.

Mother backed away from hairdresser duty once I hit my teens, and I was grateful. Ill-coifed but grateful. Hair styles came and went, and I was always a slow learner. I did the tiny pin-curl routine long after you could even buy hairpins any longer. By the time I mastered putting up my hair in the fat brush rollers, they were gone and ironing one's hair was in. Several serious neck burns from that era, as I recall.

But after spending a couple of years in Europe, I returned home (aged 30) to find Mother waiting, once again eager to "do" my hair. I don't think I could have been more bewildered had she offered to bathe me in the tub. The tension was as thick as Brylcreme. I was pretty much past the mouthy, smart-aleck stage, but I was mystified as to her motive, and I actually moved north to a summer job some weeks earlier than planned largely because of this event.

A season or two later, wigs were in fashion, believe it or not. And on a quick duty-visit, I was again faced with Mother and the hair question. Actually, it wasn't framed as a question: she was going to buy me a wig. Egad! But I went shopping, to preserve something (I wouldn't call it peace). Grumpily I tried on several wigs and finally agreed to something or other. Mother beamed at the clerk, and announced, "Mother's paying for this!" Insult to injury, and I felt a very cranky thirteen.

Why was I so resistant and unhappy about these incidents in my presumed adulthood? Yes, of course they implied criticism of my status quo, of whatever I was doing with my hair at the time, but then what didn't? Mulling it over as I have been writing, I realize that touching another person's hair, taking it into your custody so to speak, is a very personal act. It presupposes a level of connection and intimacy that, alas, was never there with my mother and me. I think each of these was an effort on her part to make connection. I wish I'd really understood that, wish I'd been less suspicioous of her motives at the time.

1 comment:

uuchild said...

This brought back so many hair torture memories for me.

As you know, I am a mixed baby. And, my hair is mixed-up. Growing up in Hoboken, NJ among all the other mixed-up people, my hair was very long, very curly, very fuzzy, and Very very whic mad those around me Very very (especially my grandmother on my mother's side).

My hair was wrapped, rollered, pinned, ironed (with a clothing iron!), chemically straightened, brushed the mandatory 100 strokes every evening (not by my hand), combed, and shampooed and creme-rinsed by every product on the market.

At sixteen, I walked in to Sonny's Beauty Parlour and got my hair cut; an Afro. Hey, it was 1973 and I was having an identity crisis. My grandmother's wails could be heard alll over the one-square mile of Hoboken. For months, my friends stayed away. I, too, hated the wig that was supposed to allow me to pass for French or something. Non, merci!

To this day, my hair and I have issues. We're not sure how we feel about each other. This can be quite difficult since we share the same space.

I think that my daughter and her hair are doing just fine with each other. I leave them alone.

Uh-oh! Is that a flat iron I see in the bathroom!

Thanks for this blog. It was fun reading.