The big comb is ocean-colored, made of hard plastic. There’s a photo, somewhere in our apartment, of me, aged eighteen months and in a diaper, holding the comb in my tiny hand, my hair a forest from birth. This comb is, apparently, a family heirloom, like the dining table with the paint flecks and peeling glaze, and the full-length mirror. My grandmother used this comb in my mother’s hair, and my mother used it in mine.
Since I can remember, my mother has always styled my hair, from the hard “bubbles” of my youth that knocked pain against my scalp, to the crochet braids of last winter. I knew my hair was supposed to be a big deal. I knew how it matched up against other little girls’, how coarse, and therefore, “bad,” it was. When my mom bought L’Oréal detangling shampoo, I somehow became convinced it would straighten my hair, and cried when it didn’t. My mother was not as sympathetic as I needed her to be, but she assured me that there was no point in being upset with nature—there was nothing wrong with my hair.
I can almost track my growing up through the styles that she gave me, each she claimed better than the last. I see her joy in the way she styles my hair, the talks we have that become more and more complex. With each pass of the big comb, I think she takes pride in her place in my hair’s history. In my early youth, while she did my hair, I asked my mother about her life in Grenada before she met my father, to tell me stories of her travels to Africa or South America, where she was when the United States invaded her country. Her fingers were skilled, loving, the stretches of time spent cross-legged between her thighs punctuated with her kissed teeth, an occasional huff of, “Turn to the side. No, the other side.”
My father left my family when I was nine. He worked for a large bank, and had moved us from Canada to Grenada. Then, he moved to Trinidad, and my mother followed him with my brother and me in tow. My father had borrowed money from several people without repaying it, and started seeing another woman. My mother divorced him, sold our possessions, and bought tickets back to Canada. From December 2005 to April 2006, we stayed at one of my mother’s friends’ homes, before moving to our own apartment up the street. We’ve lived there ever since.
When we returned to Canada, and I enrolled in elementary school—placed several grades below my intellectual level—my mother decided to change up my hair. She started with “single braids,” or “box braids,” as they’re typically called. This style usually took fourteen hours, to the amazement of non-Black people. I’d watch Dr. Phil, Oprah, 60 Minutes, and all manner of other shows to pass the time. Past midnight, I’d sit on the floor while she burned the ends of the braids with the flame from a candle, braided them into larger chunks and dipped them into hot water so they’d be curly when she loosened them in the morning. I got compliments from students in my fifth-grade class. One of three Black girls in my classroom, I became known as the one who always wore braids. People began to ask if my hair was real, to touch it even when I said no.
The way I exist with my mother is especially imperfect. When I read Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain and saw the protagonist’s mother’s relationship to their grandmother, and how rocky it was, even into the mother’s thirties, I became less certain of my plan, the plan which involved biding my time till I could be independent enough to be choosy about how I wanted to shape my own relationship with my mother. I didn’t feel as if I could rely on time. The fictional relationship between two Black women in the book made me uncomfortable, almost fearful. What I know for sure is that I don’t feel as if my mother provides me with a space to be emotionally vulnerable—to feel my feelings without judgment or expectation—and this has trickled down.
When I started dating my partner, I had this overwhelming urge to tell my mother, despite instinctively knowing not to. It was something I just felt she should know. He was my first partner. She was my mother. I thought, maybe, it would bring us closer together. This time, I was doing her hair. I parted and twisted her locs with gel, clipping them back, and told her I was dating someone, a young man I had been friends with for some time before admitting my feelings. She asked the usual questions—what his name was, where his family was from—reminded me about safe sex, and that was it. I felt relieved, hopeful, even.
The night my partner first told me he loved me, whispered in my ear over loud bluegrass music playing at a bar, I stayed out terribly late, and when I arrived home, it wasn’t just my mother’s ire at my lateness that she threw at me, but her secret distasteful prejudice of my partner, who is a recent immigrant, Middle Eastern, nonreligious, queer, and a university dropout—nothing my mother would want so close to her life. She told me he was “targeting me,” and that I was naïve and foolish, that being with him would put us all in “danger,” and that I could not live with her and continue to date him.
“I knew I shouldn’t have told you,” I said, distressed.
She told me she would have found out anyway, that Toronto is a lot smaller than people think. As if to prove her omniscience, she told me that she knew I was taking birth control—something I had actively hidden from her for almost a year. I told her I would stop seeing my partner. I did not.
My mother did not apologize for what she said. She still hasn’t. I assume she has forgotten. I shared what happened with other young Black women I knew, who all sympathized. Black mothers won’t apologize, one friend said, matter-of-factly. They don’t think they did anything wrong. They’ll just move on, and the cycle repeats. Grandmother, mother, daughter.
My mother tells me constantly that she loves me. She tells me she loves me so much, she is the only one who will ever be honest with me. My friends, she says, don’t care about me the way she does. They want me to be like them—comfortable, yet rudderless, artists—not to soar proudly, like she wants me to do. My friends won’t tell me how much weight I’m gaining, how my face fills and my thighs expand, how ugly it makes me look. Even though I tell her that I have no feelings of hatred toward my father, she knows this hatred exists but must manifest in other ways—in the late nights I spend awake, in my steadily worsening diet, the slow climb of my blood sugar.
I do not speak to her about my relationship, about sex, contraception. I know she knows I have continued to date my partner despite her disapproval, but says nothing about it, save to comment passive-aggressively whenever I wear a scarf on my head, covering her handiwork. I don’t talk to her about my anxiety, about internal pressures so intense my jaw tenses in my sleep. I don’t tell her how much I truly love poetry, which she thinks is a waste of time, how much I cried when she told me I couldn’t do the Guelph MFA I was accepted to. When I sit to do my hair, I don’t ask her to tell me stories of Grenada anymore, or of her travels around the world, nor does she offer them. I don’t tell her that when I am accepted to medical school, I will move out. Who will style my hair then?
I have started to call my mother a “typical immigrant parent.” By this, I mean that she went through ordeals to provide for me and my brother after my father left us, she wants us both to become doctors or lawyers, she thinks art shouldn’t be pursued professionally, and she has never really listened to our discussions about our mental health. What scares me is that she proclaims she doesn’t miss people—they come and go from her life and she gives them no second thought. This includes her children, she says. When she sits me down to unravel the cornrows before a wash, she says she doesn’t like it when people talk to her about the details of their lives. They go on and on, she says. It’s boring. What they need is therapy. I agreed at first, but through learning about social justice, I now know the ways in which people are depressed in this day and age, the anxiety they feel about the state of the world and their place within it, and how talking, although not always a practical solution, is some respite. My mother would prefer to not be that listening ear. She claims none of her true friends live in Canada.
I wonder if my mother is lonely, if she has trauma, if it is her, in fact, who needs therapy. When she was seventeen, her own mother kicked her out of the house for coming home five minutes past curfew, something I am grateful she has never done to me. I don’t know what I would do if she kicked me out. How scared she must have felt, how gutted, how she would have buried her tears, picked up the clothes that her mother threw across the sandy steps and headed to a friend’s house. I know that my mother has not dated anyone since divorcing my father, almost sixteen years ago, and I wonder if she misses that kind of private intimacy, the way desire expresses itself between two people. Once in a while, my mother will rant and rave about how fed up she is with everything—asks us what we’ll do if she were to suddenly drop dead, yells that if we don’t want to live by her rules, we can go and live with our father. My brother and I have learned to keep quiet during these periods, keeping our heads down as she sweeps violently. As my friend said, the cycle will repeat.
Around the time my parents divorced, my mother was diagnosed with type two diabetes. Then, she shaved her head, and as it grew out, she locked it; it had been growing since 2005. No more big comb for her. My mother cut her locks fourteen years later, and subsequently lost forty pounds in two months. The day after she revealed her true feelings about my partner, my brother and his girlfriend drove her to the hospital for dangerously high blood sugar, blurry vision, and tingling in her hands and feet. I was too drained to face her, was angry at what she’d said, but so desperately needed her to live, I would have forgiven any fault I thought she had.
My mother still does my hair, still asks when I have time to sit down for a few hours. I buy my own hair products, do the washing and drying myself. Whenever I suggest a new style, she claims I don’t take advice, and suggests some alternate, apparently better way. Usually, I end up liking the style she suggests after all, a small part of me perhaps knowing to let her have this one thing, to let her still be proud.
When my twenty-fourth birthday neared, I asked my mother for the contact information of the woman who styled her hair. She refused to give it to me. “This style was expensive,” she said. “Don’t spend money at a salon. I can do it for you.”
She still refused again, almost pleading this time.
I don’t know where the big comb is. It’s lost. I know it’s in the apartment somewhere, but it’s been years since my mother has used it on my hair. The combs get smaller when the styles get more intricate. I own a hair straightener now, and it takes less effort to comb my kinks. I know any daughter of mine—full or half-Black—will inherit my hair, its volume and personality, its history. Maybe I’ll find the big comb by that time, to pass down, to ease through the knots.
I don’t know how to cornrow, how to feed in extensions for braids, how to crochet. This lacking is supposed to come with shame in the Black community, but when I try to force myself to feel that, it doesn’t stick. I suppose one day I’ll learn to do hair, for my daughter’s sake. I wonder how I’ll style it, if she’ll even let me. I wonder how long she’ll have to sit between my thighs before I can tell her, “Go, have a look in the mirror.”