You know that thing that pops into your head right before you fall asleep? That one embarrassing thing that you did, that may have taken place years ago, yet it still continues to make you cringe whenever it enters your mind? Perhaps it was that time that you tripped down a flight of stairs in front of your crush, or that awkward thing where you wave at someone who most certainly was not waving at you. For me, that moment was getting up in front of my covservtive catholic church congregation with a freshly shaved head during Easter mass. Aside from public humiliation, this day lives on in my subconscious, because it taught me the weight of my actions and that I am responsible for my own happiness.
Earlier that morning my mother sat me down and explained in a gentle voice that maybe we should skip Easter mass and just get brunch instead. She knew I had committed to being an altar server (basically the priest’s little minion during mass) weeks ago: something I could not back out of. Yet here she was, the woman who always told me there wasn’t such a thing as too much church, telling me without meeting my eyes that church just wasn’t in the cards today. She was using the same voice she used when telling me that I “looked great!” as we waited in line to pay the woman that had just decimated my once full head of hair. Being thirteen years old and inept at picking up on social cues, I just assumed she was excited about my new hair (or lack thereof). That was of course, until the tears started.
As I helped my poor grandma who was a hapless witness to this ordeal, into our minivan, all hell broke loose.
She smiled and patted my hand, telling me that I looked beautiful as I settled next to her in the back seat. We buckled our seat belts, preparing for the hum of the engine turning over, but instead we heard quiet sniffling coming from the driver’s seat. My calm and collected mother, a hospice social worker with endless amounts of patience and emotional reserve, was crying. My grandma and I exchanged a look: this was foreign territory. We were not equipped to deal with a crying Colleen Hass, but I made the mistake of speaking up.
“Mom? Are you okay? Why are you crying?”
Between ragged breaths she mumbled something about my hair and how she wouldn’t be able to braid it anymore. I was confused.
“It’s just hair Mom. It’ll grow back.” I put a tentative hand on her arm.
My touch launched her into action: she gunned the motor and whipped out of the parking spot, almost hitting the entrance sign for the salon. My grandma squeezed my hand as I stared at the back of the driver’s seat in a daze, wondering what I had done wrong.
Back at home the reception was equally as warm. My dad threw my mom a look that he thought I didn’t catch, as if to say, “how do we fix this”, while telling me that I looked beautiful. My grandpa didn’t even get up from his recliner to greet me. He just sat and gave me a once-over, shaking his head. My little brother, who was ten at the time, my partner in crime, ran up to me and asked if he could touch it. This made me smile until he said in that blunt way that kids do.
“You look like a boy!”
The room went quiet as he voiced what they were all thinking in the least tactful way possible. I laughed it off teasing that I got the haircut so we could match, before excusing myself to the bathroom to try on the dress that we had bought earlier that day for Easter mass.
I looked at myself in the mirror and frowned at my dress. It was rare that girl’s clothing fit me as I was still growing into my lanky limbs, yet I had hit puberty rather early, resulting in a chest that could not be contained by junior size clothing. This dress was no different. Just short enough to look awkward due to my height, yet two sizes too big to accomodate my chest. Lifting a hand in front of my face, I covered my body in the mirror with my hand, focusing on my hair, and smiled. In the midst of the chaos that is the life of a thirteen year old, my hair was one thing I could control.
That night, my dreams were a slow motion replay of the day’s events. Walking into the salon, trailing behind my grandma as my mom parked the car. In my pocket my fingers turned white as I clutched a picture of an actress with a pixie cut.
“Are you sure your mom is okay with this honey?” The matronly hair stylist questioned with a raised eyebrow.
She looked from the crumpled piece of paper I had slid across the counter, to me: a gangly preteen with a full head of thick shoulder length hair.
“Yeah, actually she was thinking we could even go a little shorter in the back maybe?”
I looked her in the eye, lying through my crooked teeth.
As soon as she started cutting, all of the stylists gathered around, cellphones in hand. They asked me if they could record this: apparently thirteen year old girls didn’t come in and ask for this haircut on a regular basis. I closed my eyes and focused in on the hum of the shears as I felt my hair fall. I couldn’t stop smiling.
That smile disappeared as I woke up and ran downstairs on Easter morning to see what the Easter bunny had left in my basket, but instead found my mom at the bottom of the stairs. She was waiting there to convince me that brunch was a better use of our time today than Mass. I thought it was a little odd, but shook it off, told her she was being silly, and went to get ready for church. Now, years later, I understand her sentiment.
Church was a nightmare. I was supposed to be an altar server that day so when we arrived, I had to go back into where the priest keeps his robes to grab this long white robe that altar servers have to wear during mass. While inside, I ran into the priest, who didn’t recognize me. When he learned that I was one of the altar servers for mass, he shifted on his feet uncomfortably and left the room without a word. I thought he was just busy getting ready for mass. During the procession up to the altar, however I realized what all of the odd behavior was about. As I passed by the pews, I heard whispers of confusion and anger.
“Is that Eric and Colleen’s daughter?”
“What has she done to her beautiful hair?”
“I can’t believe they let her do that to herself”
I now understood. My mom, although sharing similar sentiments to the gossiping parishioners, just wanted to protect me. Tears pricked at the back of my eyes, clouding my vision for the rest of Mass. I was the center of attention. I literally sat at the priest’s right hand for half of the service. There was nowhere to hide.
As soon as I disrobed after the service, I escaped to the bathroom. Collapsing inside the handicapped stall my tears flowed free. It felt like I was in there for hours before a pair of orthopedic comfort shoes appeared under the stall door.
I laughed through my sniffles, opening the door to reveal my grandma, packet of tissues in hand. My eyes remained glued to the tissues as I stood there, having seen enough disappointment on people’s faces that day.
Letting out a sigh, she cupped my chin with her aged fingers, making me look at her. I was shocked to see no sign of judgement in her warm gaze. Eyes crinkling at the corners, she ran a hand through her hair, which due to her age, was about as thick as mine.
“I’m so proud of you.”
She took my hand, leading me out of the bathroom and into the lobby, where my family was waiting to go home.
Although they may not have liked or understood my hair, my family loved me and wanted to protect me. That day though, I realized that that wasn’t their responsibility anymore. I had to make my own mistakes, challenge stereotypes that they were too tired to fight for me. Yes, pieces of that day still live in my mind, making their way to the forefront of my consciousness before I slip into sleep after a hard day. But, I also think about the hum of the razor, and how I couldn’t stop smiling. The first of many decisions that, though they were met with resistance, made me happy.