Could you sit still for ten hours? I know I couldn’t. But that is what Ruby did this weekend, bless her heart.
She sat in her little wooden Balinese chair that my mother gave her when she was a toddler, a decorative pillow under her tush for padding, and patiently let me twist up her hair. It was a two-day, two-part project with each quadrant taking me two hours to complete (I also had two cocktails at the end of today. Go figure). The rest of the time was spent washing, oiling, combing, and parting. These two-strand yarn twists took us the same amount of time it took us to watch Mulan, The Lion King, Bambi, the first ten minutes of the Wisconsin Badger’s massacre of the Cornhuskers, Madagascar, way too many episodes of Hannah Montana (which could be one or four), and the first half of High School Musical. For those of you who might be tsk-tsking my liberal dispensation of video entertainment to placate my kid, you’d better grab a chair and start praying for her soul. Because I also let her listen to Katy Perry.
Witness, if you will, the post-hair-production Dance Party:
Ruby LOVES her new ‘do and I love to see her lovin’ it. It was worth every minute.
Thanks to an email from a reader, I went back into my archives and re-read two pieces I published in CityBeat that I’m putting here today and tomorrow, not because I don’t have fresh material (do I ever have fresh material), but because both of them still apply. And this one, as serendipity would have it, was published on this day two years ago. Which completely flummoxed me. Had anyone asked me to estimate, I would have said I wrote this six-months ago. God, I’m getting old. Did you know I used to walk ten miles to school, always in a blizzard? Uphill both ways! True story.
The first night we met Ruby, she pooped in Sam’s hand. It was 11 p.m. in a rented apartment in Chicago. We were exhausted from an entire day of travel, preceded by two sleepless nights spent absorbing the holy-shit-we-have-a-kid realization that most people have nine months to make. Just three days earlier, we were all, I know it’s late, but do you wanna go to the movies? and I think I’ll take a nap before dinner and Forget about dinner. We’re grown-ups! Let’s have martinis and ice cream! It was like we’d slipped through a wormhole and were suddenly wandering around in a parallel universe with zero resemblance to our previous life.
And now here we were, broiling in the oppressive summer heat, two fools crouched on the floor in our underwear, brought to our knees by an 8-day-old human. “How does the diaper work?” we asked each other. We were flailing. Badly.
That’s because we didn’t front load by consuming the What to Expect series like most anticipatory parents. Noooo. Instead, we took an intellectual approach and spent months educating ourselves about raising an adopted baby. An adopted black baby, to be exact. Swaddling’s for the birds, we thought. We will know how to discuss feelings of abandonment!
So we studied about loss, identity and connection, about transracial parenting, white privilege and black history. We took classes and watched documentaries. We learned about the racial hierarchy of adopted children and listened as black adult adoptees discussed the experience of being adopted outside their race. Determined to do right by our future child, we scoured the Internet for resources. And we sifted through reams upon reams dedicated to the importance and care of black hair. We had no clue what a receiving blanket was, but we were prepared for anything.
Except, of course, the need for receiving blankets. And, too, for what we’ve come to refer to as The Soft Serve Incident when—after having been parents for an entire three hours—Sam put his hand where the diaper should have been, in an effort to save the carpet.
After that, we jettisoned our course of study in favor of the less compelling but more pertinent 900-page User Manual. Still, as much as our kid just needed to be fed, clothed and cuddled, all of our diligent research came in handy when faced with every looky-loo and inquisitor who crossed our paths in Target. It was a prep course for something that one cannot prepare for. Truly.
Today, after four years of public parenting and being some sort of perceived expert on All Things Black for too many sheltered people, I admit, it can be tough to remain pleasant. I want to be an advocate for adoption, a staunch ally in the fight against racism and, mostly, to model the best possible responses for my child. But I sometimes struggle to find my balance between kindly addressing curiosity and lashing out at stupidity. I want to be approachable, but I also don’t want to indulge a never-ending cascade of questions from strangers while I’m in the pool helping my kid learn to use her big alligator arms. Not that alligators have big arms, but she doesn’t know that and the imagery is working.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes I just want to hurl my fantasy responses at the too-many nosey barkers of the universe.
I understand, Woman at the Zoo, that your brother’s wife’s uncle’s third cousin’s step-daughter is thinking of adopting if she can’t get pregnant with her second baby. Nevertheless, I will not tell you how much our adoption cost. Incidentally, did you crap yourself in the delivery room? Did you have an episiotomy or did you tear? Do tell!
I know that Ruby and I don’t look alike and that to some folks, this has all the excitement of a 12-car pile-up behind a jack-knifed big rig. But do you really need to know whether I like the color of her skin? Because I’ll tell you right now, Lady at Home Depot, I’m not so much digging the pasty look of yours. Also, you have a booger hanging out of your right nostril, which I would discreetly mention, but I’m not going to, since now you need to know whether I intend to tell my child she was adopted. My answer is: Un-unh. Shhhhh! It’s a secret between you and me!
I, too, learned that black absorbs heat while white reflects it. That doesn’t mean black people get hotter when out in the sun. Last I checked, 98.6 degrees is the normal temperature of a human being who isn’t fighting an infection or in the throes of a new love affair. And to the Woman Who Just Couldn’t Drop It, UVA and UVB rays cause cancer. Sunscreen is for everybody! Oh, and I promise you, there were actual black people living in England in 1968. Don’t argue, there were. They just didn’t live in your neighborhood.
No, I’m not babysitting. No, I’m not “just like Angelina!” And, no, you may not stroke her hair in wide-eyed wonder (though, had you asked first, the answer might have been different). And not that it’s any of your business, Mrs. Electric-Scooter-Rider at Henry’s, she’s not a crack baby; nor does she have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. By the way, are you riding in that thing because you’re fat or because you’re lazy? I mean, in my opinion, you really could stand to do a little walking.
Look. I know you have questions about why my family looks the way it does. But if your question has to be prefaced with “I don’t want this to come out wrong…” or if you feel a little skeevy before you ask, it’s probably best to simply go on wondering. And if you can’t bear the not knowing, I suggest you jot a note to consult Google when you get home, and let me be just another mom parenting her child
I didn’t mean for it to happen. I really didn’t. But there is only so much patience a woman can muster when combing and braiding this fabulously fabulous hair:
And usually, I got this. Twists, zulu knots, braids…I’m good. But Ruby requested small braids, which is another story.
Doing Ruby’s hair is not a rinse-and-brush-and-run-out-the-door kind of event. It’s more of a pick-your-three-favorite-movies-and-grab-a-pillow-for-your-tushy kind of event. The girl has got a lot of hair. And no front teeth. And one egg. She’s such a goofball.
Anyway, if you take all of the hair in the universe and put it on one person’s head, that is about half as much hair pictured. It is thick and enviable and very, very difficult to comb through. Did I mention that my child is tender-headed? Mmmm-hmmm.
The tears, they fly from her face horizontally with every single tug of the comb, if I’m not careful. So I go very slowly, calling on a level of patience I didn’t know I was had. Miracles never cease. And things were going alright this past Saturday; after two hours, I had the back bottom half of her head combed out and had completed nine little box braids. I have no photos of my work, however, because this is where Monster’s, Inc. ended and Dora the Whora began.
Readers, I challenge you to do something that requires concentration, dexterity, and fine motor skills for an extended period of time, all to the soundtrack of “SOY DORA! LET’S GO TO THE ISLAND OF LOST TOYS! VAMANOS! LET’S FIND MY LOST BEAR! VAMANOS! SOY DORA!”
Fuck you, Dora, was all I could think as I tried to carve exact parts in Ruby’s scalp. It wasn’t long before my child began softly crying, and what began as a soothing conversation went south:
HER: Ow! Mama! You’re hurting me… (tears flowing now)
ME: I’m sorry, baby, I didn’t mean to, but you have a really bad tangle over here.
HER: OW! Mama! Ow!Ow!Ow! (sobbing, shaking, snotting) You don’t understand!
ME: Honey, I do understand. I do and I’m tryi…
HER: You don’t understand! You are not listening to me! (Tears dripping from her jawline.)
ME: I am listening, I do hear you. I’m trying not to hurt you. You know this. I really am. I’m doing the best that I ca…
HER: You! Don’t! Under! Stand!
ME: You know what, Ruby?!? (Throwing the comb down on the coffee table) I do understand! I do! But you know what you don’t understand?
HER: (Looking at me with fear)
ME: I! HATE! DORA!
HER: Maaaaaaaaammmmmmaaaaaaaa! You said a bad word! You owe me a quarter!
ME: Fine, here’s another one. I hate Dora! There, that’s fifty-cents.
ME: It’s true. I said it. I hate her. IhateDoraIhateDoraIhateDora! There. There’s a dollar-fifty.
HER: But Mama, I love Dora! That’s mean!
Sam: (Just walked in from a bike ride) Uh…Ruby, how about you put on Finding Nemo?
Yes, I crossed an uncrossable line and I knew it. I was not Mother of the Year in that moment. I was, in fact, the Suckiest Mother of the Year.
I put myself on a time-out and later explained that it’s okay for her to love Dora and for me to not love Dora. And I explained a whole bunch of other stuff about shortcomings and suckiness and blah blah blah. I also took Ruby to someone else to finish her braids. I don’t know if that woman hates Dora, too. But she’s an expert braider, and it still took her three more hours and a river of tears before the ‘do was complete.
Ruby had only been in kindergarten one week when the father of one of her classmates approached me and said, apropos of nothing, “My wife said she’d be happy to braid your daughter’s hair any time.” Though we get comments like this quite frequently, it wasn’t something I’d anticipated and for a second, I stood there saying nothing. I looked at the guy and looked at Ruby and then back at the guy again before saying, “I usually do her hair myself, but I’ll keep that in mind.” I also tacked on a polite “thank you” since I chose to believe he was being friendly and not judgmental.
It happened again the following week when a Black woman passing us in the grocery store, paused to comment on how beautiful Ruby is. She went on her way but moments later I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Excuse me? Are you ‘mom’?” she asked. Forgiveable but still, grrrrrr.
“Yes…” I said.
She reached out her arm and handed me a business card. “I’m a hair stylist and you should bring her into the salon.” What proceeded from there was an all-too familiar conversation in which I politely entertained invasive questions about whether Ruby’s ever had her hair done and whether she’s tender-headed and how I’m doing “a good job” but I really need to be doing her hair every day/every other day/every three days and blah-dee-blah. I listened and nodded and smiled and said oh and I see and huh, while I palmed the business card that would be sitting at the bottom of the recycling bin in the cupboard below my kitchen sink in about 15-minutes. Incidentally: Ruby’s hair looked pretty damned good that night.
As proud as I am of my ability to do my child’s hair, there have been times when I’ve needed a little break and have sought out people to help me. And so it is that I’ve brought Ruby to several salons over the years—salons that have come to my attention in much the same way as both of these scenarios—and here is the (possibly controversial) thing I’ve learned at the expense of my child’s trust: As well intentioned as they may be, just because a person is Black does not mean they know how to do hair. No sirree, it does not.
One woman, Agnes, didn’t comb Ruby’s hair at all and would yank her fingers through it as she braided it. The end result was stunning but the process was so painful that Ruby and I had emotionally draining battles each time we went back. Candace, on the other hand, combed the hell out of Ruby’s hair with a giant claw-like contraption affixed to the end of a hair dryer that she’d pull through Ruby’s hair, section by section, from root to end. It made the braiding bearable but getting to that point was excruciating for my daughter; I could barely sick around to watch the histrionics as she screamed for me to take her away from there. And as much as I asked Candace to not braid my girl’s hair too tight—concerned as I was about breaking it or causing her hairline to recede—Ruby ended up with tiny white pustules at the base of her neck that itched and required an astringent for healing.
And then there was Sheá, who spent nearly two hours with a rusted hot comb, straightening Ruby’s unwashed, uncombed hair as Ruby wept and wriggled and writhed. Sheá was only half way finished when she took a Very Important and Very Long Phone Call. With her internet service provider. Ruby dried her tears and we waited for forty minutes before I finally pulled her out of the chair and marched her out the door, her hair going every which way, promising on my life that I would never, ever, ever, EVER, ever bring her back to that evil woman again. Ruby still talks about it every time someone offers to do her hair.
So it is against this backdrop—as I begrudgingly watch my girl gravitate toward Barbie and Hannah Montana and every White heroine with flowing, straight hair—that I patiently do the very best I can in the most gentle way I know how, trying to teach her, despite the few negative experiences, how amazing and special her hair is.
Everyone knows I hate cats. I don’t like Mustangs, either (the car, not the animal). I don’t like Crocs, Disney-themed clothing on adults, velour track suits declaring the physiological status of the wearer’s vagina, belching or mommy bloggers. To this list of stuff I loathe, I would like to add Stephanie Meyer’s abhorrent Twilight series and the fact that 90 of the 170 calories in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg come from fat.
And as long as I’m narrowing the scope of friends I have not yet offended, I’m going to state here that I am not a fan of facial hair on men.
Generally speaking—and there are rare exceptions—I like a clean shave, and there is no mystery that my preference is directly linked to daddy issues. My father grew a beard during the years before he left my mother, a time in which he was already gone, even if his body and his beard were physically present. He had taken up the guitar back then, and he would sit on the living-room couch, his long body curved around and clinging to the neck as if it were a rescue tube, and he would strum out “Peaceful Easy Feeling” over and over and over again. You can put The Eagles on my Gong List, too.
My husband knows my position, and, over the course of our 13-year relationship, he’s gone to great lengths to respect it. Though he also knows that if he wants to get laid, his chances—with me at least—decrease exponentially with each day the razor sits in its cartridge. The man makes his choices, and as he likes to say when soaping his face for a shave, “A happy life is a happy wife.” He really ought to write a book. Divorce rates would plummet.
His usually clean-shaven state is maintained out of a contractual agreement of sorts, in which I do not wear bangs and which has mostly worked well for us. With the exception of a time a few years back, when our marriage was in trouble and we engaged in a subliminal war of bangs vs. beard, I’ve kept my forehead uncovered and he’s limited his facial hair to a soul patch.
However, this past winter, he stopped shaving, partly out of superstition—his football team was doing well and he didn’t want to jinx it—and partly out of laziness. At which point, I just had to get over myself.
I didn’t have the energy or the right, really, to complain. He does a lot around the house, and I figured he’d earned himself a beard. It’s his face, I decided (I’m gracious like that), and he should do what he wants with it. And anyway, we’re married-with-kid and I have to be honest here: We’re the cliché. It’s not as if we’re having sex all the time and his incentive to keep up the upkeep was—meh. Sex as a tool is pretty ineffective when you’re not having it. Go figure.
When his team eventually lost in the playoffs, he went for a shave at Barber Side on Adams Avenue and, happy that he was going to indulge himself while releasing the demon, I did an end-zone dance. But it was premature because what came of that shave—and the subsequent shaves—was a handlebar mustache. I’d almost rather pet a cat than look at a handlebar mustache.
But my husband is supportive of all my endeavors, even the cockamamie ones; the least I could do was attempt to be supportive of his. Sam was having fun with facial hair, and given that I can change my look with a sweep of Red Stiletto lipstick by Lancôme, it seemed only fair to let him do his thing.
So, I accepted the ’stache when it began to grow. I even acted enthusiastic on its behalf for a while, going so far as to express eye-rolling exasperation when he told me a regular customer had asked him, as if she didn’t get his Halloween costume, “So, who are you trying to be?”
“Whatever,” I said, in solidarity. “Obviously, she doesn’t get it.”
But soon he began to absentmindedly twist it when we were chatting. Sometimes he’d smooth it. Other times, he’d pet it. And then? He started to wax it.
It moved when he spoke, tickled my face when we kissed, and, well—I have officially confirmed that I am not at all interested in Frederic Nietzsche going down on me. I’m glad, though, to have resolved that life-long question. It was keeping me up nights.
So one morning as Sam was leaving for work, just after he’d set my daily cup of coffee on my nightstand, I didn’t say, “Thank you” or “Have a great day, sweetie” or any of the kinds of things that would be appropriate for a woman to say to the man who goes to the store in the middle of the night to bring her back a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs.
No. I said—in what I thought was a very diplomatic and reasonable tone—“So, honey, tell me. How much longer is the ’stache gonna be with us?”
After that, it was ix-nay on the ustache-may conversation. Like a deviant teenager, I considered making a hair appointment to cut me some bangs while he memorialized the mustache when he renewed his driver’s license. This thing just had to run its course.
In time, he headed to Barber Side and took off the ends, a happy compromise fully rewarded when we had frantic make-up sex in the backseat of my car. While it was parked in the garage. He pulled a hamstring, but still. He got laid. And I got my baby-faced boy in a mustache I can live with.
(As published today in San Diego CityBeat.)
I woke Ruby this morning, got her dressed and then told her that I needed to rinse her hair in the sink so that I could poof it out a bit. Revitalize it. She started to cry a really slow, dramatic cry and continued until we had her head turned upside down under the faucet. At that point she only whimpered.
When she was all done with a head band in place—two minutes later—she ate her breakfast and watched a little Noggin. I passed through the room on one of my many trips taken while getting ready to leave, and stopped to tell her how brave she was to let me wet her hair (which was completely disingenuous because there is nothing brave about getting water on your hair and she was mostly crying for effect, but I figured a little positive reinforcement would bode well for tomorrow and anyway, it couldn’t hurt to take her seriously).
“You did such a good job letting me rinse your hair, Ruby.”
“I cried,” she said.
“Yes, you did. But you pulled it together and your hair looks great.”
“I cried because I was really stressed out, Mama.”
Wha…??? “You were stressed out, honey?” I tried not to laugh but it was sort of adorable.
“Yes. And what I wanted you to say was, ‘Ruby! I love you!’”
“Well I didn’t know that. I thought you wanted me to say that less because I say it so much.”
“No, I don’t want you to stop saying that because it makes me sad and it really stresses me out.”
I began these Zulu knots (or Bantu knots or “Chinese boys”) last night, but started too late and had to finish tonight. Though time consuming, it’s a very easy style to do.
The hardest part is, well, the part. Or, rather, the many parts. And more than that, the combing of the sections. Ruby isn’t so down with the comb out. But when she wears her purple princess dress, she has Super Brave Magical Powers.
With the help of some deliciously scented Tui Hair Oil, my Fearless Princess looks more like an African Queen.
Ruby, like many three-year olds, is a creature of habit. Every time she wants to watch a video—which is only at breakfast, lunch, snack time (morning and afternoon), dinner, weekends and holidays—she wants to watch Pocahontas or Mulan. Whenever we let her watch a video—which is only at breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekends and holidays (snack time is family time, no exceptions!)—Sam and I have the benefit of a few alone moments, if you know what I mean. (No, not for sex. Duh. These moments are for cooking dinner and paying bills and sweeping the dog hair and for me to point to which of my clothing items should not go in the dryer. As my friend Stacy and I coined after too many cocktails and while lying on her guest room bed together with our husbands, “Marriage: It’s AWEsome!”)
And so it is that the television is the built in babysitter I swore I’d never utilize. Instead, I remind my kid 74 times a day not to sit with her nose mushed up against the television screen and then, once she’s settled a safe distance from Pocahontas’ assets, I weep for the silence (silence being the sounds of the English conquering the Savages). So grateful am I that I’ve been known to drop to my knees weeping, a form of thanks to the person who invented the TeeVee. Was that Edison? Gawd how I want him.
I can pretty much divide the last three years of my life into segments, each headlined by a movie title: There was the Baby Einstein Phase (I nixed that after two weeks, it was so stupid. I can’t believe I fell for that marketing ploy); the Teletubbies Phase (this has waned over the years but unexpectedly recurs from time to time, not unlike a painful case of herpes); there’s the Elmo Phase which ran concurrently with the Sesame Street Stomp Phase; the Little Mermaid Phase, which horrified me to no end but which I was powerless to stop; the Lady and the Tramp phase; The 101 Dalmatians Phase; and, of course, the current and seemingly never-ending Pocahontas-Mulan Phase. If I ever write a book, these will be my chapter headers.
Last night, after much goading, I persuaded Ruby to try a new video while I was braiding her hair. How about Toy Story, I said. Toy Story is great! Toy Story is awesome! Toy Story is…full of toys! It has Woody! And Mr. Potato Head! And did I mention it has toys!? Nevermind that I’ve never even seen Toy Story in it’s entirety. I just needed to experience a single Monday morning in which I did not wake up singing, “LET’S! get DOWN! to BIIIIIIIZness! and deFEAT! the HUNNNS!”
The kid went for it. But not until after we finished watching Pocahontas. You win some, you sorta win some.
When Sam got home from the grocery store and saw that we were watching something new, he almost passed out from relief. “Wow! Thanks, baby!” he said, nodding. “I was so sick of Pocahontas that I was about to poke-ah my eyes out.”
I’m guessing it won’t be long before he’s ready to leave us for a desert island with a volleyball named Wilson.