My Mother, My Hair



Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Lower East Side

Last night, I dreamed about my mother. She was floating over the threshold of my room, a sweet smile on her face.In her raspy voice with its crazy Brooklyn accent, she said, “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you, darling. Look how long your hair got.” Because even in death, Mom was all about hair.

My mother was the oldest child and only daughter of her depressive housewife mother and hapless, perpetually unemployed father. Growing up, she took care of her parents and her three younger brothers, to little thanks from any of them.

The baby fine hair she was born with stayed that way all her life and was an area of special and shameful insecurity. I think she felt lucky to land my father, an angry and violent man, because of her bad hair.

She wore wigs when she could finally afford them, though sometimes went without one in the summer when the weather was hot. I remember going with her to a Lower East Side clothing store to return something that had fallen apart the first time I’d worn it. The woman shopkeeper argued with my mother before finally taking the item back. Her parting sally was to call my mother bald. Mom held her head high as we walked out, but I knew she was crushed.

The hair playing field leveled as mom aged. Friends who would complain about their newly thinning hair would be told, “Welcome to my world.” Some of them even started wearing wigs for the first time. Over the years, my mother’s wigs got more comfortable and flattering, except for a particularly bad one that made her look like a tiny, wizened George Burns.

She was all about hair with her three daughters and even her son, because we were blessed with “good” hair. She’d always touch mine in an offhand way and stroke it if I let her. In warm weather, she would marvel when we would wear it “hot on our necks,” as she imagined it to be. She would try to pat our errant hair into place and praise us for styles that were “becoming.”

In reaction, I suppose, I cared little about my hair. As a kid, I wore it long and stringy and parted in the middle, except where it veered off around my widow’s peak. It was seldom clean or brushed. As an adult, I would periodically chop it off and give myself trims with a pair of manicure scissors. As I grayed, I would color it for special occasions but eventually stopped.

Mom died seventeen months ago at a hospital in Florida. She hadn’t been feeling right for months, but none of her doctors could figure out what was going on. She’d had a history of mini strokes and cardiac issues, so it could have been any number of things. One December morning, on the verge of passing out, she pressed her medical alert button and waited at her open door for the EMTs to arrive. She told us later that she didn’t want them breaking it down for no good reason.

She had a leaking aneurysm. At 87, the corrective surgery was likely to kill her, but without it she’d be gone that afternoon with none of her children there to see her off. “I’ve always been lucky,” she said, which was not true. She had the surgery and miraculously survived.

The next month was spent in intensive care. My three siblings and I took shifts to be with her, so that she was never alone more than an afternoon. At first, she made steady progress. But infections set in, and every setback left her weaker. After she died, I frequently dreamed of being with my siblings at her bedside, making the decisions that would guide the end of her life.

Before we left Florida, my siblings and I hosted a party in mom’s apartment for her friends and neighbors. We invited everyone to take something of hers as a happy remembrance. One friend left wearing one of my mother’s wigs. Three more wigs came home with me to share among my sisters and brother.

Without thinking about it, I stopped cutting my hair. Without my really noticing, my hair grew long enough to pull it back in a single elastic. Then I could braid it. Now I can form a bun by twisting it in a circle and pulling the end through in a single knot. My hair has marked the passage of the days, weeks and months since my mother’s death. It grows every day as I miss my mom every day. Some days the loss is like background noise; other days, it’s front and center as when I want to call her and can’t. My hair is the longest it has been in decades.

As time passed, sleep returned. My mommy dreams grew less frequent and included more of the good times at the hospital—gossiping, singing, telling bawdy jokes, and playing made-up word games. With last night’s dream, I know I have permission to end my mourning and even to cut my hair if I want. At 57, I don’t actually need my mother’s permission but it’s still nice to have.


Paula Katz is a former lawyer from Brooklyn.  She lives on the upper west side with her husband Rick Mandler, their children Henry and C., and their dog, Mookie.

(photo: Wig Avenue)


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§ 3 Responses to “My Mother, My Hair”

  • Patty Dann says:

    What an original and poignant piece! A beautiful portrait of a mother and daughter.

  • Debra Fontaine says:

    I just lost my mom four years ago after caring for her for three years. I loved the author’s comparing her degree of missing her mom, depending upon the day, as “Some days the loss is like background noise; other days, it’s front and center as when I want to call her and can’t.“
    Yes, yes, yes. Lots of background noise days as time passes but always there.
    Thank you.

  • Gail Stone says:

    Beautiful writing and lovely description of a mother/daughter relationship and its memories.
    I inherited my mother’s good hair and it is my best feature!!!
    Thank you for my memories.

§ Leave a Reply

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