Great-grandmothers of sturdy Dutch, stolid German and delicate Danish stock, stare down from our hallway walls, variations on a theme. Thick plaits crown the head of a Heidi grown old. Hair, swept away from the Hepburn-like cheekbones of another, disappears into what can only be a loose plait, twisted and coiled into a bun at the back.
My own mother used to plait my hair so tightly that my eyebrows would migrate to higher ground. The exquisite torture of her fingers pulling each strand of hair taut, is as fresh in my memory as the squeals from my own daughter when my fingers followed the same path.
When I married, I plaited my step-daughter’s white-blonde hair before bed, just for the thrill of seeing those ruler-straight locks puff out into a dandelion cloud the next day.
She grew up with nimbler fingers and a fashion sensibility more up-to-date than my own and took over braiding her little sister’s hair into styles I had never thought to entertain.
Stressful times still find them together, fishboned on the couch, the fingers of one hooked into the hair of the other, finding comfort in the weaving, the touching, the connection.
I leave them to it, my fingers busy elsewhere. Pulling together the strands of my latest tale, working out which bits to work in and when, which bits to leave hanging. Trying to weave it tight enough to hold together, loose enough to retain a softness that flatters and frames.
Sometimes my fingers stumble, clutching at the wrong strand, pulling the wrong way, creating a snarl in an otherwise smooth section. I move on, concentrating on structure and form, knowing that I will come back later, to look at it from all angles, and redo the bits that didn’t quite work.
It’s the final moments that I love best, teasing out the tiny graceful strand that must be left hanging.
A glistening tendril that I leave as a gift. To entice. To hold on to. To carry with you, clasped in a locket, close to your heart.