Alone in the backseat, I studied my three-year-old sister’s golden-brown ringlets as she rode on Mom’s lap. Adults always complimented Amy’s curls. My fingers itched to grasp a spiral, stretch it down her back until I felt resistance, release the end, and yell “boing,” as it recoiled like a slinky. The day before my sixth birthday, I’d grown tired of my parents telling me I was “old enough to know better.” Squelching my jealousy, I sat on my hands and looked out the window until the screen in my mind went blank.
At home following the car accident, Mom gently unfolded a white handkerchief to reveal a severed ponytail bound with a yellow elastic band. I stroked the tresses and studied the scissor marks, worried about Amy in the hospital. The item disappeared into my mother’s closet for safekeeping.
Several days later, my sister arrived home wearing a helmet of sterile bandages.
“You look like a mummy,” I told her.
“Lemme see,” she said, bounding into the bathroom.
Together we stood on tippy toes looking into the mirror.
When the bandages came off, we surveyed her stubbly head and the crescent-shaped black line. The arc of sutures resembled a football with its laces hugging the curve. We took turns tracing the bumpy ridges that felt like teeth on a zipper, laughing while Mom cried in her bedroom.
Once Amy’s hair reached shoulder-length a couple years later and more closely resembled mine, I assumed the spell had been broken. Instead, Mom washed Amy’s hair each Saturday night and wrapped the darker tresses around pink foam rollers before bed, a ritual she never bothered undertaking with my wavy mane. Although it retained a limp curl for several hours during Sunday church services, my sister’s hair never reached its former glory. The brain surgeon could not work that miracle any more than Mom could go back and buckle her youngest daughter safely into the backseat.
For years my sister complained about Mom’s detangling efforts. Holding up a thick, pink Goody comb, our mother would warn, “If you can’t take care of your hair, we’ll just have to chop it off.”
The line landed like a slap. It rendered me a bystander, someone alone in the backseat. I vacillated between feeling hurt about Mom’s lack of concern for my appearance and feeling smug because I knew it was an empty threat.
When our parents divorced, my teenaged sister chose to move out and live with Dad. It was the summer before I started college, and I resented her leaving before I could exercise my privilege as the oldest sibling.
After packing her belongings, Amy asked Mom for the ponytail. Time suspended as it had during the car accident. Grudgingly, my mother retrieved the enshrined object from her closet. I could sense a chasm opening up inside our mother much larger than my sister’s vacant room. Although I did not know at the time how pregnancy would eventually transform my own dark wavy hair into thick ringlets to rival my sister’s toddler hair, I understood I was powerless to fill that expanse. The three of us huddled over the lifeless form, which looked newly cut. Admiring the relic felt like stepping on a gravestone.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/wan mohd