My grandmother had beautiful hair, but very few people knew it. She kept it in a bun at the nape of her neck. If I woke up early enough in the morning, I could watch her brushing it before she went out to do her chores. Sitting in the rocking chair in the front room, already wearing the housedress she’d sewn out of polyester remnants from the mill, she would take out what seemed like hundreds of hairpins, unwind the bun and bring the silver rope around her neck in front of her body. She would start at the bottom and brush just the few inches at the end, then move up a little at a time until she was pulling the hairbrush from her scalp all the way down to where her hair ended at her lowest rib. She became Rapunzel in those moments, locked away in her farmhouse with no prince in sight. Her hair wouldn’t be tangled, as it had been pinned up for the entire previous 24 hours, but she never skipped the ritual. It was the only activity I ever saw her engage in that was purely an act of self-care. When she had finished brushing all the way through, she would twirl her hair back into a rope, wind it back into a bun, and put all of the hairpins back in, each seemingly in the exact place from which she’d removed it.
As Grandma grew older, her vision worsened and she started having trouble getting around even inside her own house. When she could no longer care for herself, my aunt and my mother took care of her. Aunt Esther was not married, so she kept watch at night; Daddy drove Mama over in the morning so she could brush Grandma’s hair. She also cleaned the house and prepared meals, but I think the brushing was the greatest gift she gave her mother.
When Grandma died, the family worried that the funeral director would make her look wrong. She would look like someone else, someone who wore makeup to the grocery store and went to the beauty parlor. Mama wouldn’t allow it. She went to the funeral home and fixed her mother’s hair one last time. She drew it around the front of Grandma’s body and brushed just the last few inches, then moved up a little bit at a time until she was brushing all the way from the roots to the end. She twisted it into a rope and wound it into a bun, then pinned it with what seemed like hundreds of hairpins so it would stay secure. She didn’t cry until she was finished, but then she fell apart. The funeral director told her she was a very brave girl.
It has occurred to me more than once that when Mama is no longer able to care for herself, it will be my turn to step in, because that is our way. Mama wears her hair short, so I don’t yet know what gift I’ll be able to give to her. I wonder if I will be a very brave girl.