“How’s the dance going?” my grandmother asks me.
She pulls on a curl, and I wince. “Good,” I answer.
I am seated on a stepstool in the kitchen. “I’ve been demoted,” I joked the first time we realized I’d gotten too tall for the barstool or even a kitchen chair. At a mere five-foot-one, Bubby can only reach the top of my head these days with this humble seating arrangement.
This is our nightly routine, and it’s been this way for as long as I can remember. Bubby’s salon, we call it. I sit here, Bubby untangles my unruly curls, and we talk. I face the wall, but I like it that way. It’s a little easier to keep a conversation going when you don’t have to interpret the reaction to your words. Sometimes, Bubby does all the talking, and I allow her words to lull me into semi-sleep.
Tonight, I’m telling her all about our upcoming play, how I will understand if she can’t come because it will be over really late. Bubby hates late nights, and she told me off just last night for talking too loudly on the phone and keeping her awake.
“You know I’ll be there,” she says, and it’s true. I do know she’ll be there.
Bubby’s always been there for me. I don’t remember my mother at all. She died eleven years ago, when I was just two years old, and ever since then it’s been me, my father, and Bubby in this house, a closed trio. Sometimes, I gaze at the photo of my mother on my dresser and wonder what she was really like. Did she even like Bubby? I know that people talk a lot about how mothers-in-law don’t get along with their daughters-in-law, and Bubby can sure be critical, but I’ve never detected anything but love in Bubby’s voice when she speaks of my mother.
“Did you ever argue with my mother?” I ask now.
Bubby starts; I can feel the comb drop from her hands. “Your mother?”
I know why she’s confused. We were just discussing my play, and here I am dragging ghosts out of the dust, out of nowhere.
“Well, we did have our differences here and there,” she says. “But we did get along.” She chuckles. “There was this one time when I went to your parents for dinner. They were just married, and your mother must have been pretty nervous, cooking up a storm like I’d never seen. One of the things she made, and it was presented so beautifully, was a roasted duck. Now, your father can’t stand roasted duck. But he didn’t want to offend your mother. So, he whispered to her that I can’t stand duck and maybe she should remove it from the table. I sort of figured out what was going on when your mother got up in a huff, all red in the face, and stormed into the kitchen with the duck. Boy, did I give it to your father. In front of your mother! So, she should see that it wasn’t me. Then I went into the kitchen, brought back that duck, set it on the table, and took a huge serving. It was delicious, by the way. But it just goes to show that people sometimes create these in-law sort of arguments. All from misunderstandings.”
Bubby begins to braid my hair, tugging softly at the strands and weaving them together with deft movements.
“That’s life for you,” she tells me as she secures the braid with an old-fashioned thick elastic. “A whole to-do that can start from nothing.”
I get up from my makeshift seat. “Thanks, Bubby.”
I walk to my room and close the door. I stare into the mirror for a long time. Then I pull the elastic from my hair and slowly loosen the strands one by one. My hair falls in soft cascading waves around my shoulders. This is why we go through the braiding routine. I have to sleep in it; otherwise, I’d wake up in the morning with a bird’s nest.
I still have a million things to do for school tomorrow, but I am determined to do this first.
I take a section of hair and pull. Then another section, and another. I pull and I weave, pausing here and there to feel for the bumps that tell me my hairstyle is coming along as it should.
Finally, I am done. I hold up a hand mirror allowing me a rear view.
The braid looks perfect.
I have been trying this for a while, each night allowing myself time to practice. My friend Chaya, whom I consider the hair queen, demonstrated the method for me in school, and she sent me links to step-by-step video clips that guide me through the process.
I feel like I’ve grown wings, like I’ve shed another bit of my childhood skin. I feel tall, taller even than I did earlier tonight when I had to sit on the stepstool.
Get ready, world. Here I come.
The next night I shower early, as usual, hours before I’m supposed to go to bed.
“Dee, you ready?” asks Bubby when I pass the kitchen doorway, pulling out the stepstool from its place under the corner table.
I run my fingers through my hair, hesitating.
In my mind’s eye, I can see a very small me, clambering onto the high barstool, chattering away as Bubby expertly begins her battle with my wet tangles.
I see myself as a ten-year-old, defeated after a fight with my best friend, sitting sullenly on the kitchen chair as Bubby tries to worm the problem out of my silence as she twists my hair into shape.
In my mind’s eye, I see myself growing taller and taller still, spreading my wings like I can do it all.
“I’m ready, Bubby,” I say, easing myself onto the stool.
I don’t talk much as Bubby combs, but it is a good silence, the comfortable kind that lets you breathe.
I sit here tonight the way I will tomorrow night, and the night after that, basking in Bubby’s love and attention, knowing that when I am ready – and a time will come when I will have to be ready – I can do this on my own.
Until then, I will hide the edges of my wings. So I can remain Bubby’s little girl for just another little bit.