“Are we cutting it today?”
I opened my eyes and looked up at Darryann, who was standing above me at the shampoo basin, trying her best not to hurt me as she gently pulled the foils from my freshly colored hair.
“Didn’t we cut it last time?”
She didn’t respond right away, instead continuing her task of extracting all of my hair from the thin silver squares folded around them. She was very deliberate in her movements. Having me as a client for the last five years had taught her how tender-headed I could be, and she was always careful not to tug too hard on my scalp. Once she finished, she folded my hair up into a towel and went to grab her planner.
“We haven’t cut it the last two times you’ve been here,” she said once she had flipped through a few of the pages. “We need to trim it today.”
After spending almost half of my Saturday bringing its color back to life, I was not looking forward to the extra hour that would be needed to trim the abundant mass of hair on my head. But I knew if I didn’t let her trim it today, she would be after me to cut off more than I would be comfortable with on my next visit. Resigned, I walked over to her station and sat down.
She quickly combed through my hair and then sectioned it off with the large silver clips that she had lined up on her cart. I cringed a little as she picked up the first strands, exposing an inch or so between her fingers, the length she intended to trim away. Darryann looked at me expectantly through the mirror in front of us, searching for my approval before bringing her scissors forward. I nodded my head once, signaling that I was comfortable and would not cry as I had the year before when she talked me into cutting off almost 4 inches. I closed my eyes as she worked; watching my freshly cut hair fall to the ground made me anxious.
My hair easily skims the bottom of my spine when it is wet and brushed out. When it’s dry, the curl in it makes it appear much shorter. But it’s still long enough for me to reach behind my back and grab it at the ends without straining. Despite the fact that it’s not at all practical, I have kept my hair long much of my adult life. Darryann calls it my security blanket. She’s probably right, although I had never thought it of it that way prior to her observation. I certainly don’t keep it long for the sake of beauty as I rarely have it styled in any way other than a messy bun on top of my head. It’s costly to maintain, soaking up massive amounts of the expensive shampoos and conditioners that I use to keep it tame. And it’s time-consuming, forcing me awake at the crack of dawn to wash it before work and taking no less than half of a day to highlight. Cutting it shorter would make life so much easier. But I can’t bring myself to do it.
It would break my grandmother’s heart.
“Don’t ever cut your hair.” I was nine years old the first time my grandmother said this to me. “It will break my heart if you do,” she continued while pointing at me with a long fingernail covered in a shade of pink that only southern women understand. She admonished me often with similar declarations in the years that followed.
“Do you know how grateful I would’ve been to have that hair when I was your age?”
“I will never forgive you if you take off an inch of that hair!”
“If you cut your hair, I will know you don’t love me.” She was kidding of course, but this one was my favorite.
Grammy owned a small brick duplex, occupying the larger of the two units that made up the house. My family lived in the adjoining, smaller unit, but both apartments felt like home to me. On most mornings, I would tiptoe across our shared foyer to my grandmother’s side of the house, my impending arrival signaled by the loud groans the old hardwood floors made beneath my feet. She always left the door unlocked for me, and the aroma of her morning coffee percolating on the stove drifted from the kitchen, tickling my nostrils. My pace would quicken as I made my way down the narrow hallway towards her bedroom, nervous about the shadows that the outside street light cast across the darkened walls. I found safety upon entering her room, where she would normally be listening to her radio as she readied herself for the day ahead. She never seemed to mind when I disrupted the neatness of her freshly made bed by crawling under the warmth of its covers. I would lay there comfortably as the haze of Aquanet and the smell of Oil of Olay engulfed me. And my grandmother and I would sit together, talking about the things of importance to a nine-year-old girl. I was as close to her as I was my mother. And while this may not in any way be true, I secretly believed that I was the favorite among her six grandchildren. At the very least, I knew that she loved my hair the most.
I did have beautiful hair back then. Blessed with thick curls that bounced despite their general heaviness, and a shine that not even the most expensive products could afford to me now. My friends found endless amounts of entertainment in styling it when they would come over to play. I would sit for what seemed like hours while they braided and unbraided it, or tied it up with ribbons or barrettes. Complete strangers would often compliment me on it while standing behind me in line at the supermarket or as we browsed the rentals at the local video store.
But I hated it. I despised that hair as a child. It was heavy, and it frizzed in the summer heat. My straight-haired friends effortlessly pulled their smooth locks into ponytails with just a flick of their wrists. While any hair tie unlucky enough to find itself ensnared in my unruly curls would inevitably have to be cut out at the end of the day. And it was always tangled. Always. I dreaded the pain brought on by the bristled brush my mother used to work out all of the knots. But Grammy loved my hair. When we hugged, she would reach down my back and grab it at the ends to pull it forward, smiling as she smoothed it down over my shoulders. And she never tired of reiterating her impending heartbreak if I ever changed its length.
Eventually, I had cut it. Short. Macular degeneration had stolen Grammy’s vision by then, but this did not soften her stance on the subject. She could not see my shorter hair, but she felt its absence when we hugged. Her fingers would run down my back searching for the missing curls, and then back up to my ears, where the shorter strands now laid. A quick sharp tug at the ends always followed to signal her displeasure at my new shorter style.
I kept it short for the duration of high school and into my early years of college. The happy, long-haired little girl that lived next door to her grandmother had long since yielded to a discontented teenager as a heady combination of hormones and attitude took over. The once easygoing relationships I shared with my family had turned distant and strained, worsening as I rebelled against what I perceived as their overly strict upbringing. I was eager for the independence, adventure and life experiences that would only come with time. Deliberately, I withdrew from my family, only to emerge when forced out of my shell for holidays or special occasions.
On a cold Saturday morning, in December 1995, I returned home from school and was immediately greeted with the news of my grandmother’s death. Earlier, I had been in an auditorium with 300 other students, taking my college algebra final. Even before resorting to “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” to select my answers, I knew I had failed it. Disappointing because it meant yet another summer course to make up for the lost credits. But not a shocking revelation to the immature, party-driven, 19-year-old who wasn’t ready to grow up and take her education seriously.
Grammy and I spoke for the first time in weeks the night before when she called to talk to my mother. “I’m on the other line Gram; I’ll have her call you back,” I said with little fanfare. She sighed heavily, signaling her disappointment that I would not hang up with whoever was waiting on the other line and talk to her.
“Have your mother call me.”
Those were the last words she spoke to me. I never got the opportunity to reconnect with her after the shadows of self-doubt and selfishness lifted and I matured into a young woman. She wasn’t at my college graduation, my wedding or the birth of my children. I know she would have wanted to be. And she would’ve wanted my hair to be long.
“That’s enough,” I say to Darryann, as I open my eyes and smile at her exasperated look through the mirror. “It will break my heart if you cut any more.”