"Is your hair naturally curly?" my Doctor asked in her lilting Caribbean accent, while holding up my eyelid and shining a light in my eye.
Had I known how often people would ask me this question over the course of my forty years, I might have kept a running tally. I arbitrarily decided that this was the one thousand and fifty-fifth time I'd been asked and resolved to start keeping track. I wondered why nobody ever asks the smooth-haired people, "Is your hair naturally straight?"
"Yes," I said.
"You just wash it and brush it every day and it does that?"
She hit my knee with the rubber "reflex tester." My leg jumped. I felt a little funny having this conversation while sitting in my white paper gown on the examination table during my yearly physical, but I said, "Uh-huh. And then I try to gel it into submission."
What I didn't tell her is that after years of trying to tame my hair, I've discovered the secret: I don't wash it every day (though I do wet it down to wash yesterday's gel out) and I only brush it a couple of times a week. I discovered this secret quite by accident. I was running late for class—though I suspect my lit students would have been happy to miss my diatribe about Sylvia Plath co-opting the Holocaust and using it to illustrate her own personal pain in the poem "Daddy"—and only had time to get my hair wet, gel, and scrunch.
Later that day, my friend (and fellow Jew) Rox said, "Your hair looks really good today. Did you do something different?"
"I didn't brush it," I whispered, sure the God of Hair and Hygiene would strike me dead.
"I never brush mine. I just finger-comb it, slather on the gel and hope it doesn't look like the burning bush."
"Why doesn't anyone make special hair products for us?" I asked.
"Yeah, it could be called "Jew-do goo."
My hair has always been an "issue." Until the age of five it was, curly, and blond. Then it turned dark brown and started to frizz and fro. My mother's solution was to hack it all off (I'm still bitter about all the years I was forced to walk around with my hair in the shape of a giant mushroom cloud). She claims I looked cute with short hair but I suspect she got tired of doing battle with me and the hair brush—my hair tangled easily and I used to scream as she tried to comb through it. Had I been born in the nineties instead of the sixties, she probably would have steered my hair toward the dreadlock route. We'd've both been a lot happier.
But that's water under the bridge. Or hair down the drain. At any rate, when I was fourteen I told my mother I was not cutting it ever again, and for the next twenty years wore it long and frizzy. Once again, had I been born in a different era, say the early fifties instead of the early sixties, I would have made the perfect hippie. Instead, born ten years too late, I just looked like a throw-back. During high school in the mid- to late seventies, the popular girls wore their hair in the feathered Farrah Fawcett flip. I had enough hair for three girls and it was never going to mold itself into WASP hair, though I did try—once. My aunt blew-dry it straight for me, (it took an hour) but I didn't recognize the person in the mirror and got afraid. It would be thirty years before I tried that again, and it was just as scary.
I've heard that our bodies change every seven years. I'd like to add, so does hair. Around my mid-thirties, it started to shrink into curls, though the curls don't spring straight from my head; first two inches of gentle wave and then curl. The higher the humidity, the bigger the hair, the tighter the curl. I thought maybe my move to Minnesota from California when I was is my mid-30s was responsible, but happily this is not the case. When I visit my parents in the dry desert hell that is called Arizona, it still curls. When I visit my friends in Northern California—land of just-right humidity, it still curls. I'm coming up on the next seven year change, and I'm desperately hoping the curl stays.
For good or bad, my hair has always defined me, made me stand out. In the WASP world, people never forget me because they always remember the hair—hair that old ladies, old hippies, and African American men, in particular, want to touch. Sometimes they ask first; Sometimes they announce their intentions: "I just gotta touch your hair." And sometimes, with no warning, I'll feel a stranger's hands in my hair. The look on my face (shock, I imagine) usually prompts a sheepish look from the feeler, and an apology followed by words along the lines of, "I couldn't help it. I just had to."
It's a bit of a mystery how hair can hold such power over people, but I, too, have often had the urge to run my fingers through a stranger's hair that I find especially appealing—usually a man's hair in any combination of black, long, silky, curly, corn-rowed, or dreadlocked.
I love my hair now. Love the way it bounces when I walk. Love the weight of it, the lush thickness. And it seems only right that after years of envying the smooth-haired women that they now envy me.