Caught in the Trees
by Wendy Burwell
My Mom liked to have control. She really liked to have control of hair: her hair and ESPECIALLY my hair. Little did she know what was coming!
It began as soon as I had enough hair that needed taming …….sometime around the tender age of two. Comb in hand she would square off a large section at the top of my head, hold it high and have me spin until it was wound so tight that it started to lay down on itself in a bun which she then tightly fastened into place with bobby pins, never to move again! She was so pleased with the result that she persisted in doing this until I was about 8 and finally had to stop when the resulting headaches were so bad that my frequent trips to the school nurses’ office yielded more suspicion than sympathy.
One actual overheard exchange between the nurse and the classroom teacher said it all: “A child this age just does not have so many headaches!”. Some how my mom got the msg: she had to stop.
I’m not exactly sure what happened immediately following that huge change – other than the headaches subsided- or what my hair looked like without the bun. What I DO remember is that a short time later she announced that I was to get a very special haircut ! It even had a name! It was called an EGGSHELL!! Short and combed forward, possibly intended to hide my cherub face. But for whatever reason, my mom thought it would be the perfect solution! She was the only one excited about this prospect however. She tried hard to sell it to me as a very special Saturday trip to a fancy hair salon in downtown Chicago, something she herself would have greatly enjoyed, but it was my worst nightmare. I did not want to go and did my best to say so.
My protests fell on unsympathetic ears however: she was determined! Once in the chair, my hair was pulled into a pony tail and severed from my innocent head. It sounds simple but it was extremely traumatic for my young self. I don’t remember anything that happened afterward but I do remember that puny little pony tail. And in fact a few years ago to my surprise, I found that innocent remnant, nestled in a long forgotten but labeled envelope buried in a desk drawer, as I was cleaning out my parents house. She had saved it, so I’m guessing she had her own version of how monumental that haircut it had been.
That was the last time my mother could force me to do that or anything else with my hair. I was a teenager of the 1960s! Family slides show me with a variety of styles – each year a little longer and and a little wilder.
In ’68 our culture was also celebrating hair in multiple forms: We had a unique musical on Broadway celebrating long hair and all it stood for (many of the song lyrics I still know by heart). Then there was March of 1969 when John Lennon and Yoko Ono publicly took to their bed for an entire week, during which time John suggested we should all “grow our hair for World Peace”. I was already there.
I’ve never really changed my mind…. even tho I tried once or twice: In the 70’s I tried to update to a Shag: “all business in the front and a party in the back”. It didn’t last long and I quickly grew it out.
A decade later, surrounded by coiffed co-eds much younger than me, I gradually worked my way into a body-waved, shorter hairdo. I liked the final outcome for a total of 2 weeks and then immediately began growing it out again, because I missed my hair.
Around the same time I once again felt supported by the culture as I watched a broadcast of Whoppi Goldberg in her one woman Broadway show – a large billowy white shirt on her nappy head – voicing her deep childhood desire for “luxurious long blond hair”. I was already there.
Later in the 1990’s, in my role as an Oncology Social Worker, I supported many women dealing the inevitable loss of their hair as a result of their treatment, all the while wondering how I would deal with it, if ever it was my turn. All the while knowing it would require such a traumatic diagnosis to take it from me.
Much to my amazement and horror, these days many in the younger generations seem to be afraid of hair and possibly even distain it. They have come up with more ways to remove it from all over their body than we could have ever envisioned back in the 60’s. I imagine my mother approving from the other side.
I’ve given up thinking I might ever radically change how I wear my hair at this point. I wash it, twist it, bead it, braid it – and have even worn flowers in it- and not just in San Fransisco!
I no longer think about split ends but occasionally get a trim in an effort to maintain what I hope is a healthy look. When I’m out in public, I feel a certain sense of solidarity with others, young and old, who wear their hair long. And even as it has lost most of its color, I’m kind of irrationally proud of my hair much of the time
Sometimes I think about my mother, who spent decades enjoying her weekly trip to the hairdresser – after which she never combed her hair in fear of ruining the perfection she had paid for – and I realize that we all have our ways of being attached to our hair and our resulting identities.
Wendy Burwell is an aspiring writer, currently focused on the memoir and has been living in the South Wedge for 25+ years.