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    An illustration accompanying a story about a mother's love, for the connections article in The Boston Globe Magazine.
    Published:
When mom used to brush my hair
Now that I’m the one untangling my daughters’ snarls, I see the ritual in a new way.

By Laura Shea Souza

When I was in the first grade, my class made a booklet for all of our moms on Mother’s Day. Each child completed the sentence “I love my mom because . . . ” and drew an accompanying picture. My entry said something along the lines of “I love my mom because she combs all the tangles out of my hair.”

I imagine this sentiment came as a surprise to my mother, since my 6-year-old self kicked up an epic fuss whenever she combed my long, snarly hair.

After a bath or shower, hair combing in our house often took place in the kitchen, with me sitting on one of our wooden chairs, which, though perfectly comfortable at any other time, felt like a medieval torture device at those times. My mom would stand behind the chair, spraying on detangler and combing away. As my back grew more and more numb from the endless sitting, my reaction to the ordeal teetered on the edge of hysteria and hers on mild exasperation:

“Can’t you use another comb? That one KILLS!”

“Honey, did you use any conditioner?”

“Just leave it! I can’t sit here anymore! My back is breaking!”

“Sweetie . . . it’s hair. . . . It can’t hurt that bad.”

And yet, based on my Mother’s Day booklet, even back then some part of me knew that this was love.

As I grew older and spent less time climbing trees, hanging upside down on the monkey bars, and running through the woods, the tangles subsided. In the evenings, my mom would still offer to brush my hair. She told me that brushing your hair a hundred strokes a day made it thicker and shinier, and she would sit with me on the floor in the evenings while I watched TV or read, brushing away.

“Your hair looks like spun gold,” she’d say, then kiss me on the top of my head when she finished.

At some point she brushed my hair for the last time. Like so many of the other “lasts” of childhood, it passed without either of us knowing.

Near the end of my mom’s life, she found herself in a short-term rehab hospital fighting a losing battle with cancer. It was the only time in my life I remember seeing her really discouraged. Largely confined to bed, she said one of the things she missed the most was washing her own hair.

“You forget what a difference clean hair makes,” she said.

She was too weak for me to safely transport her to a tub or shower to wash her hair on my own, so I went to a nearby drugstore and bought some dry shampoo.

I propped her up carefully in her hospital bed and sprayed the shampoo at the roots of her hair and brushed. I don’t think I got in quite a hundred strokes, but I finished with a kiss on the top of her head and told her she looked great.

I think of all the years my mom brushed my hair — and the one time I brushed hers — every day when I comb the tangles out of the hair of my two daughters, now 6 and 7. I’ve been in charge of their hair for years. I used that tiny bottle of Johnson’s baby shampoo they give you at the hospital to wash their fuzzy heads when they were first born, I stuck bows in their baby hair to show they were girls before you could really tell by looking at them, I held them both on my lap for their first real haircuts. Now, when I am brushing their hair before school in the morning, they screech and holler and tell me I can’t possibly understand how much it hurts. I assure them that no one understands better than I, but part of being their mom is combing out the tangles. I’m not sure they get it yet, but this is love.