Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Hair love

At family gatherings when I was just a little girl, my brothers and I were the only young children around. By the time we were born, the family tree had dwindled to our branch, and our branch alone. I had no first cousins, not even older ones. We were it.

As such, family picnics and reunions were chock full of old people and their foibles, a source of endless entertainment for me and my brothers. There was Uncle Lew, who once bumped near-sightedly into a tree and muttered: "Excuse me." There were my Grandmother Lindsey and Aunt Ruth, sisters who'd shared much in early life and Alzheimer's at the end, who were always looking for their pocketbooks. They would spend hours at it, while my brothers and I sat giggling, gleefully pointing out from time to time that their purses were right next to their chairs all along. Grandmother Lindsey would look down, frown, pick hers up and say: "No, Ruth, I do believe this is your pocket book, not mine!" while we children doubled over trying to hold in our laughter.

I loved Uncle Lew and Aunt Ruth, but I especially loved my Grandmother Lindsey, with her soft eyes, soft skin, and large, welcoming lap. It didn't matter to me that she was confused; she was a cozy confused, after all, not meaning anyone any harm. Except maybe Barney Fife.

My Grandmother Lindsey put her foot down with Barney Fife one afternoon after her bath. When Grandmother Lindsey stayed with us, Mom would help her bathe, then lead her out to sit in the mahogany rocker to watch the TV. It was my job to put bobby pin curls in her still-wet hair. I loved standing behind her, carefully winding the curls and pinning them in place, while she crooned to me over and over: "You're such a good little girl. Such a good little girl."

On this particular afternoon, as I was twisting her hair into place, the Andy Griffith Show was on. Everyone in our family liked it. Barney, especially, always made us laugh. But Grandmother Lindsey didn't see anything funny about it at all. "That Barney! ... That Barney!" She kept saying, getting more and more incensed. Suddenly, wrenching a half-done curl from my grasp, she stood up and tottered over to the TV to fumble with the cabinet doors until she'd managed to close them firmly across the screen.

As she turned and shuffled back to the rocker, I could still hear Andy and Barney arguing, their voices hardly muffled by the doors. "Grandmother ..." I started to argue, then gave up. As far as Grandmother was concerned, she'd banished Barney Fife forever, and the town of Mayberry was history. Once again, she and I were free of Barney's trying miscommunications, misunderstandings and confusions.

As I finished up her hair, the light from the TV screen shifted through the top seam of the cabinet doors and the dialogue blathered on. But Grandmother was at peace, rocking gently back and forth, crooning softly: "You're such a good little girl … such a good little girl." And with her, I felt peaceful, too. In our own special place, Grandmother Lindsey and I were together, cozy and safe, caring for and loving one another the best way we knew how.