The Magic Brush

The Magic Brush

The Magic Brush

Most nights, I brush and braid my daughter's hair before she goes to bed. Sometimes we talk. More often she reads - she's always in the middle of a book - and I think while she quietly turns pages.  I never know which time might be the last time we go through this ritual together.

Claire is fourteen.

Of course, she doesn't need me to brush her hair anymore.  She's beyond capable. But when she calls from the top of the stairs after her shower, "Mom, can you come braid my hair," I go. I'll always go.

So many pieces of childhood have slipped away from me already. Not because I wasn't looking.  I was. Still, we can't focus on the idea that it might be the last time for each particular part of parenting - tying shoelaces or standing at the bus stop. Parenthood is full of endings. We know that right from the beginning. Too much forced focus on the finalities would completely reshape the experience of being in the thick of it. Many years ago, my younger daughter took her teddy bear on parade in the pre-school parking lot. As I watched her tootle her bear around in his shoe-box along with the other four-year-olds and their bears, I could only think about it being the last time she would seem so little. When I think about that day now, I remember most is my own sadness.

I know a day will come when I pull up short and realize I can't recall the last time I brushed Claire's hair, the last time she called down from the top of the stairs for me to tuck her in and do her braids. The realization will make me sad then, so I try not to be sad about it while I'm doing it.

Brushing Claire's hair has been quite a long-suffering saga, actually. By age two it was long and thick enough to braid or pigtail. It became a daily battle - Mom and The Brush against The Hair. By five, weary of the siege, she agreed to have it cut.  It was adorable lopped off at chin length, but Claire missed her hair, so it grew back. And grew and grew and grew.  And we fought and fought and fought because she could barely get a brush through it herself but didn't want me to do it either. It HURT.  I thought of myself at age seven or eight being threatened by my father to stop all that screaming while my mother brushed my similarly thick, fine, very long hair. Otherwise he would march into the bathroom and cut it all off. Those same threats marched around my head whenever I wrangled Claire's hair.

Then I procured the "magic brush", a very soft-bristled brush that allowed me to untangle and shape the top layer of Claire's hair into a semblance of neatness without attacking anything underneath.  Negligent parenting, or picking my battles? Probably some of both, but I figured it was only hair, and there were more important things in life to scream about.

Once when visiting friends in New Hampshire, I forgot to pack the magic brush. Claire's screams shook the cabin. Maybe some of the uproar was for effect in front of an audience, but more if it was due to my merciless approach. I was fueled by frustration and embarrassment that this simple act of grooming could be so intensely awful.  When Claire's hair was finally tangle-free, I slumped in front of the fire and admitted to my friend that the understory of Claire's hair had probably not been brushed through thoroughly in over a year. I couldn't tell if she, the mother of two boys, was eyeing me with sympathy for how trying it could be to mother daughters, or pity that I was so inept at this basic parenting skill.  Maybe I didn't know how to do it right because I didn't have a clear memory of my own mother doing it well. I only remembered the misery.

I do remember my mother brushing my grandmother's hair, though, when she was too old to do it for herself. The process was soothing to them both, a small act of caring to connect them across the chasm of old age and loss.  Will I someday brush my mother's hair that way, when she is ninety-four?  Will Claire someday brush mine? These are my thoughts as Claire reads her books, and I brush and braid in the sanctuary of her cozy room, the stars pinpricking the blue-black sky outside her window.

In her recent memoir, novelist Amy Tan describes a Chinese story about the Breaker of Combs, an old, outcast woman called upon to break the hair combs of ghosts who loved too much. Breaking the combs of these departed souls broke their hold over loved ones who were still alive. In this story, the old woman imparts that a daughter who combs her mother's hair takes in all her mother's mistakes and sorrows.

What about brushing a daughter's hair?

As I separate Claire's hair, smoothing it and twining it together for sleep, can I absorb some of her fears and worries and failures, the disillusionments that accompany growing up?  Can she absorb all my hopes and dreams for her, my bottomless love for the little girl she was, my amazement at the grown up one she's becoming?


About our Blogger:

Elizabeth Dougherty is a freelance writer in Chester County, Pennsylvania.  Her blog, Plan Q, chronicles real, everyday experiences and viewpoints - funny, stressful, tearful, mundane - and how they all tie together to define our lives. She aims to make her readers laugh, cry, feel, think, and wonder.  That's what writing and reading do for her, and if she can pass on any of that, then all the twists and turns that whip her right past Plans A through P and land her at Plan Q are more than worth it! Visit Plan Q at or connect with her on Facebook.




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