I step into her room at 6.45 a.m., like I always do, to wake her up on schooldays. Princess is lying face down on the edge of her pillow with Bobby the stuffed dog peeking out of the crumpled sheets. Her hair is a dark halo around her head. I touch her shoulder.
“Five more minutes” she mutters. As I try to step out, she grabs my hand and pats the space beside her. I acquiesce. I run my fingers through her hair as she grabs the last few minutes of sleep, trying to finish the dream starring teenaged Greek demigods.
A year ago, DQ, Princess and I got haircuts on the day we boarded the flight to Singapore, to join my husband, Princess’ father, to begin life as a new family. At the salon, I noticed how thick her hair was; a legacy from her deceased mother, I assumed. She gamely agreed to the short bob suggested by the hairdresser, pleased with the extra attention. She looked cute, a little older, more sophisticated than her ten years.
DQ has thin, straight hair, like me (and my mother and maternal grandmother). DQ’s silky hair doesn’t tangle even after a rough night. She moved from a short style in kindergarten to long braids to finally settle upon a ponytail as her preferred hairstyle for school. I call her my little pony. One day in the park, a stranger asked her what shampoo she used. I took it as a personal compliment; after all, I was responsible for her general health and shiny hair! We went through a phase where she wanted curly hair. As a birthday treat, I took her to a salon where they twirled her hair around curlers and brushes, blow-dried and sprayed her cascade of hair and generated a few ringlets. DQ’s excitement lasted longer than her curls, which went back to their default position, like a dog’s tail, in less than 24 hours. DQ then started lobbying for getting highlights in her hair. A few streaks of honey blonde, or red – why won’t you let me, she wailed. We have agreed to revisit this issue after she turns eighteen.
In our blended family, the responsibility of caring for Princess’s thick tresses naturally fell on me since HH, like most fathers, is clueless in this regard. With my considerable expertise in this department, I thought this would be an easy task. Ha!
For tomboy Princess, hair care is the last item on her priority list. On good days, it’s a waste of time, similar to daily showers and on bad days, it is an enemy to be subdued if not attacked outright, like the monsters that her beloved hero Percy Jackson tackles. If she could have her way, she would leave her hair in an isolated quarantine facility, out of reach of well meaning but pushy family members. The first time I tried to comb her hair, she bolted out of the chair as if I had pronounced the need for a root canal. If brushing her hair was a chore, washing it was a punishment – for both of us. She hated having me hover around in the bathroom trying to shampoo her hair that had been tortured by basketball games in the humidity of hot Singapore afternoons and twenty laps in the pool.
Some of my favorite memories of childhood involve the time my mother spent rubbing coconut oil on my scalp, trying to cool my head from “all the studying”. I loved to sit on the floor as she combed my hair and braided it. This was my special time with her, time that I didn’t have to share with my brothers, time where I had access to my mother’s complete attention. While my DNA strands may connect me genetically with my mother, my hair strands connect me to my mother on a visceral level. These strands that she caressed and cared for were proofs of her affection and building blocks of our strong bond.
I desperately wanted Princess to allow me access to her tangled mass of hair, initially, to get her into a presentable form. Awful hair is a symbol of a mother’s neglect. With immense patience (and a little bit of pressure from HH), I was able to convince her to sit still while I combed out the tangles. I told about my petite grandmother with waist length shiny silver hair who looked like a character from a fairy tale. She showed me her baby pictures with a head full of hair on her newborn head. DQ shared her admiration for a friend who had recently had her head shaved for a good cause. In the context of bad hair days, Princess told us the story of Medusa. The girls and I tried out a few shampoos and conditioners until we found the right one. As her hair grew, we bought accessories and tried new styles. Over time her hair transformed from battlefield to bonding opportunity. Each morning before school when she asks “Can you comb my hair?” I know we have turned a corner.
I pull my fingers out of her hair and Princess stirs to an instant state of wakefulness.
“Good morning. You look like Simba.”
“Look at your hair” I say. She smiles.
“See what I found in your hair” I show her the pink clip that has been in her hair all night.
“In my mane, you mean” she says with an impish grin.
“That’s right. DQ is my little pony but you are my mane girl,” I say as I hug her and pull her out of bed. We laugh.