I’m one of those people who falls asleep in the salon chair.
I don’t mean to. But there’s nothing more relaxing to me than someone’s hands in my hair doing what needs to be done. It is where I get my joy. #BlackJoy, even. And my relaxation. Whether it’s the luxuriousness of the shampoo bowl or just the combing, curling, and styling, I’ll probably be knocked out or close to knocked out, risking the burning of my scalp and ears from the flat iron from my jerky head motions to stay awake.
I have a lot of hair and the fortune of not being tender-headed. So anyone doing my hair who is not me is a welcoming experience, one I’m often willing to pay money for. But what I wish I could have is an experience no amount of cash can replicate, because for most of my life it was free.
My mother told me she learned how to braid by weaving blades of tall grass in the fields near the four-room shack where she grew up, off of a plantation in Shoffner, Ark., outside of Newport. She was always, always good at doing hair. She did her aunts’ hair, and grandmother’s hair, and her own, her baby sister’s, and the hair of the many other women in her family. But whose hair she took the most pride in was that of her daughters.
My mother always wanted girls. I’m convinced the combination of her wish for girl children (and the wishes of her dearly departed mother-in-law, who she never met, who also desired daughters but ended up with three boys, one my father, and that of her own mother, my Granny, who wanted girls but ended up with seven sons and only two daughters), was how things ended up this way. It was cosmic, fated, always meant to be. Even though she would have been happy to have had a son or two, girls were what she really and truly wanted, as she’d grown up with nothing but boys and had done her time in the world of men as a girl child.
So she got them, three little girls, to dote on and to dress up and to show off, and the feature she was most proud of was our hair. She festooned our dark, thick, curls with ribbons and bows, balls and barrettes. She braided it up in the summer and put beads on the ends that went clackity-clack. On special occasions, she even let me wear it partially down (she always thought it was too “adult” for me to not have some kind of braid tossed in). And I can still remember all those hours spent either in a chair or between her strong thighs, getting my scalp oiled and my hair braided as she coaxed it to grow long and thick. And I would always fall asleep because I felt safest when with my mother. I knew she would never hurt me and that there was nothing to worry about in the world with her around. Even when it was time for the bimonthly wash and press, hot comb in hand, I was only a little concerned (she rarely, if ever, burned me). Even with the threat of an errant ear singeing, I would still fall asleep, knowing good and damn well that one should not nod off when a hot comb is nearby. But there was something just so soothing about it. Her hands in my hair, making beauty happen.
The last time my mother did my hair, before she got sick and years later, passed away from dementia, I was around 32. She was dying to do it as I’d “gone natural” and started wearing my hair curly before it was fashionable. She hated it. She had always prized my long hair the most, and loved it when it was straight. So while she saw my hair as a lot of work, it was truly a labor of love for her and she jumped at the opportunity to get her fingers locked around my curls once again to straighten them out. She used way too much grease, but the effect was still quite pretty, albeit shiny as hell.
After my mother got dementia, I took the time to try to do her hair a few times. She hated it. Sickness had caused her hair to fall into tangles and disarray, so washing it and detangling it was painful. Still, she would sit still for it, as if she was still imbued with Black girl patience, the kind we learn from a young age, to sit still to get our hair done. When it was over she thanked me and I told her she was pretty.
We all loved our mother—our loving, sometimes a little intense, but always well-meaning, mother. Sure, there were those odd days when that other lady inside her would show up, ranting and raving at the world, upset over invisible dust on her furniture or our father tracking in grass from outside after mowing the lawn, but most of the time you got Deloris, Babyray, as her family called her affectionately, or Mama, the sweetest little Southern lady in the world. And she only wanted to do her daughters’ hair because she thought she knew best what to do with it. And she did a good job with the French braids and the twists, the cornrows and the plaits. So good, I never learned how to do any of that stuff because I always thought she’d be there to do it.
I miss my mother. I miss her jokes where she always screwed up the punchline. I miss the fun we had together, charming store clerks and neighbors alike with our comedy routines. I miss her Black history lessons and arguing about politics with her. (Back then she thought everything was about race and I didn’t agree, only to come around about 20 years later to her worldview, spouting some of the same talking points.) We were double trouble, double the charm, double the loudness, double the everything when we were together, the original #TeamTooMuch. I miss calling her every other day just to tell her “the everything” and her always being happy to listen and comment. I miss how we could talk for hours as if we literally didn’t just talk 48 hours ago. I miss that she never got sick of me and I never ever didn’t feel loved by her.
Deloris Belton was a good mom and I wish she could still do my hair because I loved it. I loved it as much as I loved her. I loved it as much as I love my hair. I loved it as much as I love being Black. And I hope this Black girl memory that I cherish made you want to go hug your own good Black moms a little tighter. We only have them for a short time.