Just minutes after my granddaughter Avery was born, we were all admiring her at the nursery window when my son-in-law’s grandmother remarked, "Oh what beautiful curls she has!” I didn’t buy it for a second. Sure enough, as the goop on her head dried, we literally stood there and watched that poor baby’s long dark hair go straighter than the bristles on a scrub brush, right before our eyes. The worst part is, it was all my fault and I knew it.
How could I be so certain? Because I come from a very long line of ringlet-deprived females, going back at least four generations, if not further, and since our horsetail-straight hair is apparently an embedded dominant gene (science-speak for "tough luck, dearie – you’re stuck with it”) I passed that unfortunate trait right along to my own daughter Lauren, who in turn handed it down to Avery.
But on the bright side, perhaps borne out of necessity, we all also inherited a knack for braiding pigtails – or "plaits” as my great-grandmother called them. And she ought to know. She wore one herself for 96 years. It’s odd the things that stick with you, but I have a vivid memory of sitting on a stool and watching my own grandmother as she gently combed out her mother’s thin, yellowy-gray, waist-length hair. Then starting just at the nape of the neck she would begin braiding it with quick nimble fingers, all the way down to the wispy strands at the very end. Next, she would take this long single braid and sort of wind it around her knuckles into a little bun no bigger than a tennis ball, before fastening it snugly against the back of MawMaw’s head with hairpins.
I don’t have a photograph of my great-grandmother's braid, or of my grandmother herself in pigtails, but I know she wore them when she was young because she told me so. A few years later when my Mom came along she had hair that was not only straight, but thin and downy-soft as well, which made for some pretty skimpy braids, and although my own pigtails would ultimately be much heftier, alas my daughter inherited the scrawny ones.
I can’t say for sure exactly when my hair was "plaited” for the first time, but the fact that I practically had enough length and thickness to manage it at birth leads me to believe I was probably in pigtails before I got out of diapers! But regardless of how old I was, the point is that throughout most of my childhood, this was my signature style.
Then one day when I was in kindergarten disaster struck. Just before I lay down on my mat for a nap, a classmate gave me a gargantuan piece of bubble gum, and it was still in my mouth when I dropped off to sleep. Not surprisingly, the whole big wad fell out and became hopelessly entangled in one of my braids. Despite the best efforts of two teachers, my mother, lots of turpentine and as I recall, a few ice cubes, nothing could budge that sticky blob. In fact, the more they messed with it, the worse it got.
Finally it was decided that the only solution was to cut it out. So what did my parents do? They simply lopped off both pigtails still braided! (Can you imagine how that must have looked?) The gummy one was tossed in the trash, but my tender-hearted Daddy rescued the good one and put it in the huge safe that stood in the corner of our garage, and over the next three decades nothing pleased him more than taking it out for us to admire while he retold the story. A few years after he died, my sister Jeri took that pigtail and had it framed as a surprise for my fortieth birthday. The small gold plaque simply reads, "Gum 1959”.
Not long ago I sat down on the floor behind three-year-old Avery and began braiding her straight, silky hair, just like I used to do to my daughter’s hair when she was a little girl, and just like my mother did to mine, and her mother did to hers, her mother did to hers, and her mother did to hers! It was the sweetest feeling. With every twist of my fingers it was as if I was weaving the strands of six generations of women together. And believe it or not I actually found myself praying, "Lord, someday let Avery’s daughter have pigtails too!” (Then I quickly added, "But please – don’t let her drop gum in it!)