I study the difference between myself and my mother. The family photographs have kept an accurate account of this, though their edges have curled and their colors have faded. Sometimes I rip their glossy white borders to hear the feeling of something being torn.
My hair was blonde, like my mother’s, when I was a little girl. Thin and light like a chick’s feathers, before I began to change. The strands slowly darkened to different shades of brown, like a rotting vegetable, before eventually turning black.
My mother keeps the photographs tucked in her bedroom drawer, separate from the others. I lift them out and bring them to my eyes to remember the day when I had been crying. My face wet and red, and the clippers, which were as big as my head, moved closer toward my ears. The man who held them had pushed my head into a deep porcelain sink, with a dent made for my thin neck. Water from a rubber hose sprayed down hard, mashing my hair flat to the scalp. This man had a dark mustache, arched eyebrows, and in that room—tinted red—next to his gleaming row of scissors, was a lamp with a little white lamb painted on it. My mother was there, in hell with us, barely readable in the shadowed purple corner, her blonde bouffant sprayed solid and high. As dangerous as the beehive in our backyard.
A bib was placed over my head, different from the one I used at home, when meals were eaten—this one was plastic, with a hole bitten into the shoulders. The mustache man placed me in a chair, and with his foot on a lever, pressed it over and over. The chair slowly raised toward him; he swiveled it, moving me in any direction he chose. I closed my eyes as the tears ran down, and listened to the sound of the scissors, the metal hands spreading and coming together. I looked down when the sound stopped, and there in my lap lay what before had been part of me: my hair. I lifted the feathery bits in my hand and howled.
My cat Inky came to mind, with my lap now covered as Inky’s belly was, with hair. We never cut Inky’s hair. She licked it clean each day, before cleaning my own hand. Why did human hair continue to grow and not stop, the way Inky’s hair had?
Mom said, Inky’s hair is fur. Inky’s fur keeps her warm.
What was our hair for then, if not to keep us warm?
Hair makes you look pretty, Anna, mom had said.
If it was so pretty, I wondered, then why was it being cut off?
These thoughts ran through my head, and Inky’s soft, untouched coat. I couldn’t wait to hold her to my chest after all of this was over. Inky would warm me, and then she would purr.
The mustache man ran his fingers through my hair, and sprayed something that smelled like my mother on the blonde bits still left. I touched my hair and it felt stiff, not soft the way it had been before. The mustache man took my hand, positioned it next to the other one in my lap, and turned my chair to face my mother. What do you think? he asked her. Slowly she emerged from the corner and walked toward us, her face red from the light. She put her hand on my head, ran her fingers down to my ear and felt the close-cropped stubbled hair there. She looked down at my lap, and scooped up the stray bits of hair in her hand. It was a small yellowish heap, which formed a matted ball in her palm.
My mother stood in front of the mirror, looking at me and my hair, herself and her own hair, and then at the clump of hair in her hand. She moved closer to the mirror and held her hand to her head. She said, We have the same color hair. She said this like it meant something, something important. I could feel the excitement coming off her like sparks that burn fast before dying. The mustache man walked into the picture with us, and placed his hands on my mother’s shoulders. Of course you should have the same hair color, he said. Like mother like daughter.
There was something about my mother then. I could see it in the mirror being played out before me. What the mustache man said had troubled her. I could see that. Her shoulders stiffened, and he withdrew his hands. My mother shook her head back and forth between looking at me and at her own image in the mirror. It was as though she were comparing—our eyes, our noses, our mouths, the shape of our heads. Disappointment washed over her face; even I could see that aside from our hair, we were different.
Later, she would place my hair in a clear plastic bag, label it “first hair,” and tuck it inside one of her deep drawers. In this drawer my baby teeth, one by one, would also find a home, and my toenails. Hard little crescents with pasty gray stuff still stuck to them.
My father must have been there too, otherwise there would not have been the photographs. My father could make himself invisible with a camera in front of his face. Then there was that sound, when he cracked open the back of the camera and took the canister of film out of there, our memories frightfully contained.
I began to have many haircuts and hairdressers, though these occasions were no longer photographed. Eventually I was old enough to go to an adult salon, with jumpy disco music and men who moved my head abruptly to different angles. There was Rick, who was always tan. His wrists were loose with a hairbrush in his hand. Each side of Rick’s head, the hair feathered from his face, was like a wing.
Howie used a hair dryer that was too hot, and sometimes he would burn my scalp. He explained what the term “split end” meant. Taking a strand of my hair as an example, like a piece of woolen yarn, Howie pulled the forked end until there were two strands, not one.
Sean had tattoos that were old and blue and had bled into his fleshy arm. An anchor, a rose and a star. His belt buckle had the words Harley Davidson carved onto it, and sometimes he told me about his motorcycle. After each cut he kissed the top of my head, in the center part that reached to the scalp. It gave me a shiver each time.
My mother always came along to my haircuts, and at my insistence would sit in the waiting room, although she would have preferred standing and watching, advising Rick, Howie or Sean, Can’t you make it just a little bit shorter? Afterward I slowly approached her waiting legs, crossed in a chair at the front of the salon, the beauty magazines on her lap spread to the horoscopes.
Once, she said to Sean, whose hands were on my shoulders as he presented me to her, with bangs this time, the brown hair pulled back behind my ears and the sides flipped up to the sky, It doesn’t even look like you cut anything. What kind of haircut is that? I could feel Sean’s hands harden on me as he said to my mother, What do you want, for Anna to look like a boy?
And although Sean was my favorite hairdresser, my mother informed me as we drove away from the salon, he was no longer mine.
My hair was darker by then, darker than my mother’s. A muddy brown, and there was no mistaking—we were no longer the same, as we had been before.
Like the other girls, I wanted my hair to be long. I wanted to braid it into a heavy rope as Kathy Fox did; she sat in front of me in third grade. Once she let me touch the braid—it was complicated and wonderful that so much hair could be on a head and not in a plastic bag, or on the floor, about to be swept up with a broom. Karen Katlan had a sequined headband that pushed the hair from her forehead and down to her shoulders like a waterfall, the tips waves of curls. There were rubber bands with plastic balls on the ends, the size of gumballs, and clear ones with swirls like Superballs. Some had glitter embedded in them. They made Sheila Connolly’s dull brown pigtails sparkle. There were barrettes, and clips with little ribbons dangling off the sides, but my hair was too short for these accessories to have anything to hold onto.
And although I never cried when my mother told me it was time, again, for another haircut, I remembered the photographs my father had taken of me, my first cut, and I let the tears I had then do the crying for me.
Because I was good. I listened to my mother; I nodded my head and sat next to her, seat belt on, as we drove toward the salon. Because it was so important to her that we do this, I never screamed or stamped my foot. I never slammed a door—and I never once cursed her.
But sometimes I would hold my hands to my belly, a small sad frown on my face, pretending to have a stomachache. By the time my cut had been rescheduled, the hair was one week longer. I could make a small stubby pigtail in the back of my head, before it all slipped through my fingers.
Short hair is sophistication, my mother would say, chewing on a stick of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, modeling herself as the example. Sophistication was my mother’s pinkie finger extended as she sipped her morning coffee, sophistication was placing the soupspoon next to the fork, cloth napkins instead of paper towels. Sophistication was a bath instead of a shower, bubbles not soap.
Slowly I began to understand. Like mother like daughter, she would say, attempting to erase what difference she could—the dark crop that sprang from my head, in constant need of tending. When I was younger we had matching outfits, but when I outgrew them she insisted I dress in the extra-small sizes from the women’s department. The same angora sweater that she bought for herself in large, hugging her cupped breasts, hung flat on me. I rolled up the sleeves. I tucked the extra in my jeans until my middle bulged with material. And I remembered what she had said—like mother like daughter.
My mother used to sing a song:
There once was a girl, with a tight little curl,
right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good,
she was very, very good,
and when she was bad,
she was horrid.
What my mother keeps in her deepest drawer: a bubble-gum pink sheer nightgown with a ruffle around the collar. I lift it over my head and my nipples jut out, hard and small, from beneath the fabric. Pastel-colored soaps in the shape of shells, gray dust buried in the crevices, but still smelling faintly of roses. A dog-eared menu from a restaurant I never heard of: Cat-Man-Doo. Words in another language. And then I pull the plastic bag of first hair from the drawer. It had been closed with a frayed twist tie, the center exposed wire, as if it had been closed and then reopened many times. I imagine my mother lifting my baby hair from the bag and placing it next to her own blonde hair. The same. How happy that must have made her. I pull a strand from my scalp, black as a spot, and mix it amid what I used to be, when I was good.
I gave my daughter anything that she wanted. I was a good mother in that way. I made some mistakes, as all mothers do. But it was different for me; it was harder, before my daughter came to be my own. All those doctors with their clean nails, all those tests, all the shaking of heads with feigned sympathy. No heartbeat. No nausea. No kicking. No milk in my breasts. My belly would not stretch. My eggs, the doctors said, were nonprocreating. Useless. And everywhere, the constant reminders. In the supermarket, the women with their swollen bellies—a present their own bodies could give. Life. I could not bear to look as they plucked the tiny glass jars of mashed carrots and peas from the shelves, in preparation for the world to come. I hated them. I would turn my cart away, because all I ever wanted, since as far back as I could remember, was a family of my own.
I could never tell Anna where she came from. That she did not come from me. That I was useless. My eggs. Crack open an egg, the way I do when I prepare breakfast for her, and it reminds me every time. The glistening yellow dome, and the clear goo surrounding it, sizzling in the hot butter before hardening to white. There was no yolk inside of mine.
She never asked me the questions, the way I expected her to. The way I was told that she would. I was told that they know, deep down, that they are from another. This is something they feel. And l was prepared, the questions banged through my head, loud intrusions all the time. They were like this—
Where are the photographs of you pregnant with me?
Where are the photographs from when I was born?
Why do we look different?
Why do I feel different?
She never made me have to lie, which I knew I could, if I had to. There was a fire, a fire that burned it all. We saved you, and we saved our lives, but everything else was destroyed. The photographs burned to charred carbon when I lifted them, black dust on my fingers. I could never, ever, tell her the truth. That I was useless. My eggs. She would hate me if she knew. Anna would walk away from me and she would never come back.
As she grows older my mother’s hair, like my own, begins to change. The silver strands reveal themselves as a spider’s web, visible only in certain shades of light. My mother pulls them out without flinching, one strand at a time, in front of the bathroom sink. How much could that hurt? As painless as weeding the garden, she says. And I remember her telling me, as we crouched in the backyard, our hands muddy with dirt: You get them at the roots, Anna, so they won’t grow back. The sad sounds the weeds made as I ripped them from their soil—the shocked roots dangling, a bright and glowing white. The bloodless veins of a body exposed. I’d gone to sleep that night imagining our backyard overgrown with weeds, weeds as long as me. Long green hair I could braid and then shake free.
I gather my mother’s gray hair from the sink when she forgets to wash it down the drain. I twist the threads into a silver ball—a caterpillar’s cocoon, a nest for a baby bird. But it is only my mother’s hair.
Everything is always in its place. Anything I look for I can find. The pink nightgown, the shell soaps, the first hair photographs I flip onto my parents’ bed—my warped deck of cards. I open the first hair bag. I muddy its contents by marking it with who we are: a gray hair of my mother’s and a black hair of my own.
My mother never confronts me with what I do, the bulging bag as evidence in her hand, a small stuffed pillow that never does get to bursting. She never asks me what it means. She must never dig in her drawer anymore for the bubblegum pink sheer nightgown that my father still hopes to see her body through.
I open the bag and take from it a strand of black hair. I strike a match and the orange flame flickers as my heavy breath hits it. Dangling the hair just above the heat, I watch as it quickly curls and melts, emitting a sickening smell.
My mother said, You be good now, promise? And I nodded my head, the way I always would. I was old enough that I no longer needed a babysitter; food was in the fridge, their number was next to the phone, an unfamiliar area code in front—where my parents would be spending the weekend. My mother seemed worried, her hands on her hips, the bags by her feet at the door, she kept saying, Am I forgetting something? Dad brushed his hand onto Mom’s hip and then lifted one of the bags.
Once they were out the door I could take my time. No one was home to find me. I pulled open the shallow wooden drawer that had been deeper in my dreams; the pink nightgown, the shell soaps, the first hair bag and the photographs.
As I lifted the photographs in my hands I felt something different this time. Inky was my tired witness. She slept away the days of her old age, a tight black ball on the bed. I flipped through the photographs, and there, interspersed between the mustache man and me in his chair, my mother in the corner, were pictures of another. A woman I’d never seen before, and yet, there was something familiar. The photographs of her were smaller than the others, and bordered with a scalloped edge, not unlike the tiny tears I had made around my first hair photographs.
This woman was not my mother or anyone else in my family. In one photograph she sits in a lawn chair outside of a motel, on the asphalt edging the parking lot. She is wearing a one-piece bathing suit and reading a National Geographic magazine. The sun’s rays reflect off her long legs, gleaming cross-legged in the chair. Her hair is as dark as the sunglasses hiding her eyes, and her lips match her cherry-red nails. A pair of men’s shoes, too big for her feet, rest beside the chair. A blue convertible and a red pickup truck are parked in front of her. A telephone pole, a stop sign, and a dusty brown mountain are small in the distance. It’s late afternoon, and the shadow of the lawn chair arches in back of her.
It was like a song, I thought—"California Dreaming."
She must have been about 18.
I felt a pulling, a nervous string taut in my belly. There was something holding me back from knowing for sure, though I knew. I knew who she was—with her hair, which was as dark as my own. Her hair as long as mine would have been, if Mom hadn’t insisted I cut it. I went to the mirror, held the picture to my face, and it fit—as certain as a puzzle’s last piece. Of course we would have the same hair. The same lips. The same chin. And I was not surprised.
The last photograph of her had a date on the back, written in my mother’s handwriting. 1969, the year of my birth. Sitting at the edge of a swimming pool, her tan legs skim the surface of the water. Her face is turned away from the camera, her cheek flushed as if embarrassed; so different from her steady gaze in the National Geographic photograph.
What had she been reading about so intently that day?
Perhaps it was an article on a seemingly ordinary mammal—the possum of Australia. They live in trees, and hang upside-down by their tails. Occasionally they lose their grip, and fall with a thud to the ground. Or perhaps a species of bird had just been discovered. A scientist had written an essay describing his find in elaborate detail. One morning, while trimming his frangipani trees, it emerged from between the leaves, bright blue with a crown of red upon its head, twittering a strange, magnificent tune, like nothing hed ever heard.
Or maybe she had not been reading about any one thing and had merely been skimming the pages of the magazine, dreaming a vague dream of where she wanted to go or who she wanted to be someday. Her hair, streaming down her shoulders, was slick and wet from the water, oily like the pelt of an otter. Looking closer at the photograph, it was then that I saw her stomach, swollen like a ball in front of her. I knew immediately what it was—the shameful bulge stretching the seams of her bathing suit.
Between the photographs was a yellowed piece of paper, folded three times over. My hands shook as I attempted to flatten its brittle edges. One thin sentence was typed there. It read, I LOVE YOU PLEASE DON’T FORGET ME. All in capital letters, it felt as urgent as a telegram; a ship lost at sea. Without a handwriting to distinguish it, it could have been from anyone. A note from my father to my mother. Words to my mother’s favorite song. A piece of garbage found in the street.
But I knew it was not any of those things. It was a note to me. Where had it been hidden all these years? I imagined after the final push, the long black hair wet with labor, she had placed this note in the hands of her doctor and whispered, Please deliver this, the way you delivered this child. And then, she fell asleep.
And the doctor would have looked at me. Red and puffy, a bald butterball who’d have stuffed a piece of paper like that one in my mouth and mashed it down, or ripped it to bits or stared at it dumbly. So the doctor gave the note to my mother. She would have forced a smile as she read the words, before tucking it in her handbag.
What would you do with a note like that?
Dry your eyes with it.
Blot your lipstick.
Place it in a frame above your baby’s bed.
Hide it, until you are no longer afraid of the truth.
—Suzan Sherman’s writing has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Bookforum, the New York Times, the New York Observer, and the Forward and is forthcoming in the fiction anthology Lost Tribe: Jewish Writers on the Edge (HarperCollins, August 2003).