I sat in between her knees Indian style. I could feel my right foot going to sleep. I didn’t care because I was too focused on the tugging and pulling of my hair. I squirmed. I made ugly faces. My eyes squinted with each yank. Sometimes I would cry or scream. She would hit my head with the rat tail comb. “Chiiiilllllldddddd, if these braids come out crooked!”
This was a ritual. A black girl ritual. Getting my hair done by my grandmother was a process and I was what Black folks called “tender headed”, meaning that my scalp was extra sensitive. My hair long, thick and curly. She was very proud of my hair. Her hands worked furiously in my scalp weaving and creating a masterpiece in my curls and kinks. With each brisk move of her arm I could smell the hair grease which was her mixture of castor and coconut oil with a hint of orange. Sometimes if she used too much I could feel it drip down the nape of my neck and down my back. It tickled and felt warm.
I would smell like oranges for the rest of the day.
The end result of her work would be rows of calculated braids, each one decorated with a colorful barrett at the end. When I would move my head from side to side I could hear them clank against each other. Red, purple, pink, blue and yellow. My head looking like a rainbow after a harsh summer rain. Everyone coming out to see it. Pointing, smiling and happy faced.
I would hold my head upward to the sky and with my eyes I would say; yes it’s me and like the rainbow I too am beautiful…
My grandmother a Baptist woman with wide hips and a husky laugh was from Mississippi. Her hair long and straight with sparks of silver strands throughout. Her skin light and eyes deep brown. Her looks being a constant reminder that her father was the result of his Black mother being raped by a White man. His white father never denying his son would constantly refer to my great granddad as “his nigga.” The other White men taking note not to mess with him because that was Neil’s boy.
Often times I would hug her and bury my face deep in her bosom. She would grab me in her big arms and squeeze. The air would leave my lungs and then she would give me permission to breathe then seconds later squeeze me again. At nine years old love smelled like gardenia and talcum powder. Her hands wrinkled but soft like fresh leather. Her fingernails always painted a soft hue of pink.
As a child I loved to make her laugh because it came from deep inside her stomach. The air pushing it up from her insides. I’d purposely do things just trying to get her laugh out. I knew it was real, not the fake type of laugh to appease a child. She would close her eyes, hold her stomach, bend over and I would wait to hear it make its way out of her mouth. Sometimes it felt like eternity waiting for her mouth to make that sound. My ears waiting in anticipation. A sense of accomplishment was felt once I heard her laugh. I had done something big and I would laugh with her.
One day she was laying on her sofa and told me to get the comb and hair grease. Her paisley night-gown draped on her body and her hair sitting in rollers. Her house slippers dangling off her feet. I stopped in my tracks. Looked dead at her. “Now you know I don’t have all day girl!” I knew what was coming. I sulked and slowly walked down the hallway to the linen closet dragging my feet behind me with every move praying to the Lord that she would forget. Finally, I made my way back to her with my arms over flowing with hair items. She had not forgotten. My eyes began to tear up and my scalp tingled. She sat up on the sofa and I sat on the wood floor between her knees. Our cat Maggie brushed up against me and with my right foot I kicked her away unleashing all my frustrations on the helpless animal. Maggie whimpered as she limped away and I felt bad for a moment until I felt the first tug and busted out in a cry.
As an adult and after an ex who used to be Rastafarian I would dreadlock my hair. One summer I came home to visit my grandmother and took my scarf off. With my locks draped down my back I shook my head to let my mane breath. Each dread as black as the night.Grandma Vivian’s eyes welled up and she held her chest stumbling towards me in disbelief. “Baby, how could you be so lazy to let your hair mat up like that?” I said nothing.
I still make ugly faces when I get my hair done. When I smell oranges I often think of Grandma Vivian and sometimes when I weave braids into my baby sisters scalp I see a glimpse of her hands.
I don’t cry anymore though, at least not in public.