Sixteen years ago my daughter was born completely bald. In this respect she was certainly neither unique nor precocious. I, her young and sanguine new mom, in fact paid little heed to this inauspicious development. I was already dreaming of the day when that perfect tiny face would be ringed with waves of thick, auburn hair. I could already feel my fingers parting those heavy tresses into even thirds, carefully and meticulously passing one section of hair from either side over a center strand, the perfect braid tapering to a tiny curl held tight by an elastic band and a shiny bow. And there would be so many hairstyles to choose from: french braids, fishtail braids, pigtails and ponytails. On days I was feeling particularly audacious I could try my hand at a four-strand braid, or even that paragon of all braids—the Princess Anne braid.
I am, after all, my mother’s daughter, and each day of my young life began in her cramped harvest gold bathroom where she went to work taming my coarse and stubbornly frizzy hair. Armed with a tube of Alberto VO5, a cup of warm water, and a sturdy brush, my mother worked her magic, creating hairstyles that were the envy of every little girl in elementary school, and are forever memorialized in yellowing photos still scattered throughout my childhood home. In truth, I relished our morning ritual, urging my mother to add even more gel, pull each strand just a little tighter. If I did not have a raging headache by lunch, I considered it a bad hair day.
My daughter also patiently and stoically accepted my attention to her hair as the customary start of most every day of her youth. Brushing and combing, gelling and plaiting. Those days she left the house perfectly coiffed were the best days. On the worst days, the days when I was wrecked by chronic and debilitating illness, my handiwork was hurried and careless, her stray fly-aways leaving me utterly defeated.
Now at sixteen, my daughter no longer needs me to do her hair anymore, and hasn’t for quite some time. A jeans and oversized sweatshirts sort of young woman, she pulls her hair into a quick ponytail every single morning, and has little use for gel or adornments of any kind.
So it was quite surprising when recently she called me into her bathroom, and held out her hairbrush and a sticky old tube of Alberto VO5. She needed to pull her mass of hair into a tight high bun to fit it under her shako, the plumed hat that is part of her high school marching band uniform. She had struggled mightily to complete the task, but in the end her thick hair had bested her.
They say you never know when something is the last time. The last time you’ll pick up your baby, the last time you’ll read her a bedtime story, the last time tiny feet will scamper into your bedroom, a teary toddler seeking comfort from a nightmare. That knowledge is ordinarily only confirmed in hindsight.
Yet as I brushed the knots from my daughter’s hair that afternoon, applying copious amounts of gel as I worked her hair into a perfect bun held tight atop her head, I knew this would be the last time. And in some way knowing felt like a gift. I took my time, putting to memory the gentle curve of her head, the weight of her hair, the look of her patient brown eyes staring back at me in the mirror.
And if for some reason I am wrong, and my daughter should once again seek my assistance with a braid or a bun, a ponytail or perhaps even a Princess Anne braid, I will be here for her—armed with a sturdy brush, a cup of warm water, a full tube of Alberto VO5, and an open heart.