Sunday, August 5, 2007

Vicarious hair and other parental nonsense

When I was a little girl, my neighborhood nickname was "Mag the Hag." I earned this nickname in part because I had long, white blond hair that was usually a tornado-like mess. My mother had always dreamed of having long, flowing blond hair herself, but since nature had given her thin, fragile, black hair, her next best hope was my hair.

It's tough to have long hair when you're a little kid. Stuff gets tangled in it, it's a lot to manage, and in the days before instant conditioner or even a decent creme rinse, the after-shampooing comb-out was nothing short of child abuse.

My mom was beleaguered by the household duties of a 1960s housewife, which included raising the four kids she had borne in a span of only five years. Having a daughter with high maintenance hair was not a very practical choice, but my mother's desperation for good hair was bound to be vicariously experienced through me. Except...we had very different ideas about what makes hair beautiful.

My mom had enough to do during the ins and outs of a normal day without having to put too much effort into fixing my hair. This meant that ninety percent of the time, she pulled my hair back into a high ponytail and sent me on my way. On a special day, I might get braids (which she could never get quite right, as a boy who sat behind me in second grade pointed out repeatedly), and for holidays, there was the exotic and highly anticipated bun. With hairspray.

I hated ponytails. I thought they were uninspired and an insult to my inner princess. I dreamed of long, flowing hair that rippled in the wind. To help myself achieve this vision of hair beauty, I almost always tried to pull out the ponytail immediately upon stepping into the backyard. There were two problems with this, yet they never dampened my Rapunzel-like aspirations. The first problem was that my mother put my hair up using regular rubber bands. They were a bitch to get out unless you could see what you were doing, which I could not. After making a snarled mess of my hair with the stubbornly stuck rubber band, I would usually abandon my attempt and go about my day, unconcerned about the cotton-candy shaped blob of hair on the back of my head, complete with twisted-up rubber band dangling in the knot, too embedded to fall out. I opted to ignore that which I could not see in favor of enjoying the long strands grazing my cheeks in full cooperation with my dream of seraphim's locks. From an outsider's perspective, I can see where Mag the Hag may have seemed appropriate at the time.

My mother was exasperated by my stubborn insistence on trying to get my hair out of the ponytail, and around the start of fifth grade, I was allowed to get my first salon haircut. I had the majority of my hair cut off into what was then known as a pixie (let's hear it for Mary Martin, liberator of all little girls being forced by their mothers to have long hair).

My mother didn't totally throw in the towel for a few more years, as she started bleaching my now-changing hair color back to blond starting when I was about 12. Highlights were still a relatively unknown technique in the hair world, so Mom, Nice 'N' Easy and I had a standing appointment in the bathroom every eight weeks or so. My mother was willing to give up on the length of my hair, but when it came to the hormone-induced end to having a blond-haired daughter, Mom wasn't going down without a fight.

I always felt that my hair was mine and nobody else's, although Mom disagreed. My mother wrung her hands in anguish as I eventually eschewed blond hair, and then proceeded to change my hair to every color that L'Oreal makes--and a few they don't. My hair has been very long, layered, straight, permed, short, extremely short, avant-garde, mainstream, and just about anything else you can think of. Except pink. I never had pink hair. Not on purpose.

I am in my 40s now, and my mother still gives me grief about my hair. She had to concede that I wasn't going to wear makeup, not even "just a little lipstick before going out." Maybe she decided to pick her battles, and as her own hair hasn't aged well (not that it has ever, in 72 years, had the chance to be gray), she's still holding out hope that I can get away with long, blond tresses. Moms. They always have so much hope for their children.

My mom didn't leave her vicarious aspirations at the end of a hairbrush. Oh, no. My mother always wanted to be a dancer, so I took tap and ballet lessons for five long, painful years where I succeeded only in demonstrating my unconquerable lack of coordination. On my sister's 12th birthday, a piano showed up in the house in the middle of the party. I asked my mom, "My sister going to take piano lessons? I thought she wanted to learn the flute." My mother gave me that patient, condescending look that only mothers can give and said, "Well, you're both going to take lessons."

I was confused. I looked my mother in the eye and said, "But I don't want to learn how to play the piano. That's boring." My mom, for whatever reason, wouldn't take lessons herself, and so I was forced, for seven long, long years to sit at the piano every day wondering how this practice time was fulfilling my mother's dream of playing the piano. I think my parents had envisioned evenings of the family gathered around the piano with me taking requests and providing live entertainment. They hadn't factored in my complete and total lack of interest in playing this instrument, let alone the absolute absence of talent or natural ability on my part.

What a disappointment I must be to the Gods of Vicarious Fulfillment. I was a totally withdrawn dork in high school, firmly distanced from activities and the popularity that comes with them. I didn't become a dancer or theater star, I failed at all athletic pursuits I was forced to endure, I continue to refuse to bleach my hair, I haven't touched a piano in almost 30 years (nor do I want to), I'm seriously fat, I didn't marry JP but when I did marry, I eloped(!); I refused to have children, and I gave up a lucrative and trendy career to work with disadvantaged immigrants.

Sorry, mom. You tried, you really did, but unfortunately for you, I did succeed in one thing you wanted: I learned to think for myself and stick to my guns.

No comments: