My hair has a mind of its own. Always has, always will. I found a baby picture of myself that my dad scanned into his computer and titled “Chiara – pompadour”. It was the very first in a lifetime of hair-dos that weren’t really done, they just happened.
Growing up with five sisters, hair was a thing that mostly clogged shower drains making our dad mad, and caused after-shower-tears as our mom brushed the snarls out of six tangled masses. She used a big boar bristle brush that tore through our dripping hair until it hung straight and then she packed us off to bed with wet heads. By the next shower we had grown new snarls, some so thick and matted that our mom pulled a pair of scissors from the bathroom drawer and simply cut them out, the same way she cut out random pieces of chewing gum, or metal barrettes so entangled they couldn’t be retrieved. No matter how much hair we lost there was always masses more.
Hair was a plaything, we shredded old tee shirts and tied them into our wet strands in endless haphazard knots and then went to bed hoping to wake up in the morning looking like Shirley Temple but waking up with a headache from sleeping on lumps and looking more like we had stuck our fingers in a light socket. We spent hot afternoons in the cool of the downstairs bathroom burning our fingers on the plug-in curling iron, watching thin trails of smoke rising into the air believing in the curls we never quite achieved. It was fun to experiment but ultimately, we didn’t care that much about what our hair looked like and we ran around outside wild and carefree catching stray sticks and leaves in our tangles and leaving strands behind in the blackberry bushes.
One summer, our mother made an executive decision, everyone was getting a shag. We were visiting our grandfather in Montana where we spent every day outside from morning ‘til night, digging holes, swimming, playing kick-the-can, we came home dirty, happy and tired with tangled hair. Mom had told us stories how growing up her own mother used to wear a turban up to their cabin in the mountains, to keep the relentless summer bugs out of her hair. Our bug repellant was pony tails or braids or nothing at all. One afternoon Mom took us over to a friend’s house. One by one we were called inside and seated on the kitchen stool where the friend proceeded to chop our long hair away in jagged chunks. She used a whisk broom to brush the cut hair off our shoulders and tee shirts, and sent us out the back door to play and to send the next kid in. Jagged layers of unevenly cut hair covered the linoleum floor and our heads. It was a snarl free summer. Mom was a genius. As we grew taller she cut our hair shorter.
When Dorothy Hamill won the gold medal at the 1976 winter Olympics we were obsessed along with the rest of the country, with her and her hair. I had to have that cut and no one could convince me that my hair wouldn’t do what Dorothy’s did. It was the first time in my life I asked for a “celebrity” haircut. I felt sassy and special, that haircut held the hopes of becoming an Olympic athlete. My ankles turned inward when I tried to ice skate but I had a Dorothy Hamill do and it MADE MY SUMMER. It also made me a target for endless teasing from endless siblings, “Your hair looks like a mushroom.” Like every haircut, it only lasted a summer.
When puberty hit, everything changed, meaning not only everything but also my hair and the hair of my sisters. Every other girl had either wavy hair or corkscrew curls. Seemingly overnight our hair went from carefree to troublesome. Brushing now resulted in bushiness. My sisters with the curliest hair brushed their curls until their heads resembled tumbleweeds. They knew nothing about what to do with their ringlets or how to tame them. They had the long-desired Shirley Temple hair, they just didn’t know it yet. The other three of us had unruly waves, bumps really, that didn’t do much of anything but look like we had tied our hair up when wet and then let it down. It bent in different directions and was completely undone. I spent my teenage years and most of my 20s not really knowing what to do with the stuff on my head. As my curly-haired sisters discovered product and how to use it I watched their hair transform into crowns of glory, and wondered why mine hadn’t done the same. People loved their curly hair, remarked on its natural beauty and how people would pay A LOT of money for hair like theirs. They reached out to pull at a ringlet and watch it bounce effortlessly back into place. Boys fell in love with them and their curls.
In my early 30s, my college roommate’s husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, he’d never been a smoker, but he had served in the Persian Gulf War. When he began balding after radiation treatments all of his friends at work shaved their heads in solidarity, and my friend Chris, cut off her gorgeous long hair, and I cut off mine. We donated our hair to Locks of Love and immediately began growing it out again. It wouldn’t save his life but it was something we could do in memory of him for many years after he died. I was no longer attached to what was attached to my head, it became something to cut as seldom as possible so I could grow it longer, faster and cut if off sooner. There was a freedom each time I cut it off, I felt light, carefree, giving it away felt good, not knowing whose head it would end up on felt strange. I would look at my braids, rubberbanded at either end and sealed in a Ziploc bag and wonder whose hair they would become and would it behave for someone else? The feeling was pure.
In my 30’s I finally and earnestly paid attention to how my hair behaved. I loved the way it dried quickly in the mountain air of Montana. I couldn’t bear the way it stayed damp into the late afternoon on cold, foggy San Francisco days, an airy halo of frizz enveloping my head. On a visit to Japan my sister-in-law and her mother decided to treat my mom and I to an afternoon at the beauty parlor where we would have our hair done and they would dress us in traditional Japanese kimonos. After hours of fussing, brushing, and clouds of hairspray my shoulder length, bumpy, humidity-frazzled hair was torqued into a French-twist-football. My head throbbed from all of the tugging and the tightness of my do and the ladies ooohed and aaahhhhed and chatted happily in Japanese as I smiled politely through several hours of chitchat and photographs to record the new me. That night, back at the hotel I was desperate to undo my do and spent a good half hour pulling endless bobby pins from my hair one by one, and to my surprise one large snarl of fake hair that had been stuffed inside my own, the air in my football. When all was undone the effect was rather pleasing, I felt like a Pan Am flight attendant fresh off a 1960’s Intercontinental flight. My hair had volume, it kept its shape and was shellacked to last through anything, plus, I felt sexy. I took pictures and then I took a long, hot, delicious shower and washed it all away.
These days, I keep it simple. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I will never have my sister’s maddeningly amazing curls, I’ll never have Amal Clooney’s lustrous gloss and I’ll never be able to pull off a pixie cut like Michelle Williams, but if I could that would be my look for life. What I have is my hair, simple and clean, the hair that countless people have told me “smells so good” when they give me a hug and which my nephew once told me smelled like beer. I have also, on occasion, been known to smell my own hair, mindlessly twisting it around my finger and bringing it to my nose while I’m on the phone or reading a book. It does smell good. I like it mid-length so I can always pull it back and out of my way, so I can get things done when I need to, but long enough so I can coax some gentle waves out of my bumps and so it still blows around my face when the car windows are down on a warm day. Carefree. My hair feels like me, bumps and all.