Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cornrows



“Girl, get on in here before your hair gets wet.”

A few brief drops from the bus stop to the house were impossible to avoid and were always forgiven as a matter of course. I was doing the unthinkable: Standing in the mist on purpose. It was a gray, muggy, rainy day – I stopped for a second- enjoying the slight spray on my face. My head mostly sheltered by the porch, I removed my plastic rain scarf and arched my face outward. The mist inched near my hairline before I was brought up short by Chick’s question.

I went straight to Chick so she could check my head. She brushed away the scant drops and pronounced, “It’s all right. But don’t even ask me to go outside today, hear? We’ll hurry up and make lunch and even make some crispies before Bob Barker comes on.” Chick wasn’t one to let the grass grow under her feet. The Price Is Right wasn’t even on yet and we had already been Uptown to the fruit market and back again on the bus. I wasn’t sad about not being able to play outside though. It was raining and only bad little girls who didn’t mind their Mama or Chick or Lydia would play outside and get their hair wet. I was a good little girl most of the time, who knew how to read some already and count to 100. I skipped into the kitchen behind Chick with my mind on bologna sandwiches and Rice Krispie Treats.

When Mama went to work, I went to Chick’s house. She dropped me off in the early morning, when it was almost light but still mostly dark. I was a big girl of four going on five who should have been above such a thing, but I’d want to cry when Mama left. I probably did cry when I was younger, even though I loved Chick and Chick loved me. It just took me a while to get used to being at Chick’s all over again every day. Chick never seemed to mind though. She was always patient enough to wait until the love settled in, patting and stroking my hair or leaving me to myself for a while.

Because Chick loved me. Chick loved me more than sunshine and butter cookies and watching Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons with me snuggled next to her on the couch in her house with only one lamp on, spreading it’s yellow light while it got dark outside; more than the snuff she dipped and the Lysol she doused the house with liberally twice a day and three times on Saturday. On the Seventh day, she rested. I’d have to do a lot more than get my hair wet than make Chick mad at me. Chick with her warm brown skin and big hugs when she handed them out. Chick with her hair kept mostly in a scarf and who wore a wig like my own grandmother but who had nice hair of her own, unlike my grandmother, who cut her’s off when granddaddy made her mad.

Most of the time, Chick was standing right at the door when I got there. Mama would do my hair before we left the house, but we were always in a hurry and I was either too sleepy or too excited to sit still. Mama didn’t bother too much about my hair in the mornings but she couldn’t just leave the house without doing something to it. Anyhow, she knew Chick would put on the finishing touches if not just plain do it over after I finished my oatmeal and toast or bacon and grits. But sometimes when we got there, Chick would still be making beds or praying upstairs and I’d have to deal with Lydia giving me my breakfast instead.

Lydia liked me but it took me a long time to like Lydia even though I admired her because she was almost grown up and her hair was always pretty like Thelma on Good Times. I was scared of Lydia for a long time because Chick bossed Lydia but Lydia bossed me. Sometimes Lydia would play or sing but she had a way of spraying spit through her teeth in an arc and she could aim. I’d run away shrieking and I hated it when she did that, even though I practiced doing it on my own. I could do it by accident sometimes but never on purpose.

Lydia also did grown up things like cleaning or cooking and leaving early in the morning like Mama did. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without coming out and somebody saying, “Child, look at your hair. Come here,” and then there’d be fifteen minutes of somebody tugging at my naps with a comb and hairbrush. I nearly learned how to tell time before I could read, looking at a clock figuring out how much longer somebody would be doing my hair. No matter what Lydia did, her hair always looked exactly like what Thelma’s did last week. I didn’t really like Lydia until I found out that where she went every day wasn’t Work but someplace called High School. I reasoned that still made her kind of a kid because I’d be going to School when it was Next Year and I was kid and only kids went to School.

I don’t know when it happened but one day, being at Chick’s house was almost as good as being at home with Mama. On really lucky days, Chick would tuck me into the spare twin bed and I’d drowsily, partly wake up to hear Chick telling Mama, “Go on home, May. She sleep anyhow but you ain’t putting that child in that car. Go on now and sleeps it off. I’ll do her hair tomorrow anyhow, and then you won’t have to worry about it. Go on now.”

I could snuggle back down then and sleep until the train whistle blew. Then it would be daylight and we would clean house and I’d get to play awhile before Chick did my hair. After she did my hair, I’d have to sit quiet somewhere and watch TV or read a book. But the bright red tricycle she kept just for me would have to stay locked in the little shed where I loved to go get it with the tiny key. The housework would be done so I couldn’t even play-dust but I knew no one would be stupid enough to dust or work up a sweat after they just go their hair done. Not just a morning brushing but a whole hair-do done right and tight.

I was still learning the days of the week but any lucky day that I woke up at Chick’s house after the train whistle blew, and cartoons were on instead of Bob Barker, was sure to be Saturday. One Saturday, long after the train whistle and bacon and grits and cartoons and play-dusting and two doses of Lysol and riding the tricycle and locking it back up again with the tiny key and Mama still hadn’t come yet, Lydia asked Chick, “Mama, can I try putting Deborah’s hair in cornrows?”

In the time it took me to add Doing Hair to my mental list of Grown Up Things Lydia Does Even though She’s Still Kind of a Kid, Chick came to the door of the kitchen and considered my hair. She had stopped for the usual fifteen minutes and brushed it to shining neatness only that morning between the train whistle and bacon and grits but, sometime between play-dusting and locking up the tricycle, my hair was again all over my head.

“Child, go ahead. Maybe her hair will stay done for awhile.” Chick walked back into the kitchen, shaking her head as if to say she didn’t believe there was any power on earth that could keep my hair done. I didn’t think so either but Lydia was going to try. We trekked to the kitchen sink and I waited while she got out a few towels and the shampoo. By the time she finished washing it, my hair was in a tangled ball like a scouring sponge. So she got out the comb and the brush and the hair grease and we sat down in front of Soul Train. Lydia tugged and pulled while I flinched and squirmed. A few times she’d rap me with the comb hissing, “Sit still,” and I’d whine but after a while Chick would come to the door and I’d shut up until she left, then the battle started all over again.

Lydia won the war. By the time it was over, my hair was in a neat pattern of pretty braids with smooth shiny scalp in between. My hair was braided so tight it hurt if I moved my head too fast but I liked it anyway. I was admiring my head in the mirror and I knew Chick was going to say something about the Bible and vanity in a minute but just then Mama knocked on the door and came right in. I ran to her and hugged her so hard I thought my arms would fall off. I looked up at her, not letting go.

“Do you like my hair Mama, huh? Lydia did it. I never had cornrows before. Why do they call it cornrows if it’s braids, Mama, huh?”

I loved Chick and even Lydia now, but Mama was here. I was happiest when my two worlds collided, and I would miss being at Chick’s; but it was almost time for the last Saturday dose of Lysol and I wanted to go home.

“It’s really pretty, Lydia, thank you. Maybe it will stay done for a while.” And then to me, “They call that style cornrows because it looks like rows of corn with spaces in between. I’ll show you on the way home.” But I was already remembering the fields we always passed on the ride home that I never paid much attention to for looking at the horses and cows.

By the time we got home after passing the horses and cows and Mama had pointed out the real corn rows with the spaces in between, the sky was darkening and an afternoon shower was rolling in. Before it was even time to get out of the car, Mama was looking for a rain scarf, umbrella, something but she only found one rain scarf under the seat of the car.

Mama flicked a look at my hair and then put the scarf over her own pretty curls. “Oh,” she said relieved, “you’ll be just fine.” And she got out of the car, which was my cue to get out of the car too.

I hesitated for only a second but in the next instant I knew the truth. Cornrows were some kind of magic. My hair would not only stay done for a while but I could get my hair wet and Mama wouldn’t care!

I was so happy! All the tugging and pulling had been worth it. Oh, I’d put up the same fight the next time, but I knew on the next lucky day, I’d beg Lydia for the privilege of battle. The feeling of rain on my scalp was incredible. The drops soaking into my hair soothed my little soul and my mother looking on in open approval was rapturously satisfying.

“I’m glad Lydia did your hair,” Mama said, for once taking her time getting into the house, not hustling me inside and trying to shelter me from the rain with her purse only to mostly smack me upside my head with it in her hurry. “We’ll go to the pool tomorrow.” I stared at her in awe. In our apartment complex there was an enormous blue shimmering rectangle with a small fenced in kiddie pool. I’d long ago resigned myself to only looking at the pool longingly, sighing my tiny sigh as we passed. There was no use begging Mama to go, knowing she’d only ask, “And get your hair wet?” I could not believe that Lydia, of all people, had been the key to unlocking that fence for me. I smiled broadly, not believing my luck and Mama returned my smile, running a hand over my smooth braids fondly, but lightly, not willing to muss them, even by her slight touch.

“I’m a Pisces and you’re a Cancer,” I had no idea what she meant but she went on to explain, “We were both born under star signs for water. I’m going to teach you how to swim.”



*****
With many thanks to "The Skeptik One" who sparked the idea for this tale about my life.
Also thank you to Sherri at Every Day Miracle for allowing me to use the beautiful picture.
Score for English Comp: 49/50

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