In one of my earliest memories I’m sitting on the lid of the toilet, wearing pajamas, a trash can between my feet. My mother is holding scissors as if she has just discovered what they are. She is a woman of many talents, but cutting hair is not one of them. Still, I let her try. Over and over, I let her try.
As a child, my hair was straight and never frizzy. Blunt bangs over my forehead, a China-doll bob. Every two or three months, when my hair grew into my eyes, my mother would take the scissors out from behind the bathroom mirror and attempt to trim them. Every time, it would end with me in tears and my mother insisting It’s not that bad! It’s not that bad!
When I started middle school, I asked to go to a real hairdresser. My mother didn’t argue, which was surprising, because around this time, it felt as though every conversation we had turned into some sort of argument. I think this tends to happen to most mothers with daughters who remind them of themselves. To have a child, after all, is to spend a lifetime staring down the worst parts of yourself, then seeing them reflected in the very thing you’re meant to love.
The hairdresser was the only thing we agreed on. My mother drove me to the salon. It was objectively better. My hair was smooth and evenly cut. My bangs fell perfectly, just above my eyebrows. I did not cry at the sight of myself.
Now that there are years between these moments and miles between my mother and me, I realize that the salon gave me the same haircut that my mother had. In photographs, we look almost identical from behind. Maybe this is why I liked the way I looked more. To be a child, after all, is to be young enough to look up to your parents.
To tell the truth, there were times when I missed it—my mother’s hands tucking hair behind my ears, her fingers tilting my chin forward, the way her touch felt when my eyes were closed. I don’t know the last time my mother touched me that way.
I have inherited many things from my mother, but perhaps the most destructive is an unjustified confidence in my ability to cut hair.
My sister’s hair has always been a dream. It falls in waves down to her waist. She’s been a hula dancer her whole life; when she moves, her hair flows behind her, effortless as a refrain.
The day before my sister was set to move to New York for her freshman year of college, the salon canceled her appointment. All she wanted was curtain bangs. We drove to the drugstore and bought a pair of scissors. As we stood in the checkout line, I told her, with complete conviction, It’s just a trim. It can’t be that hard.
I was wrong. There my sister was, hair wet from the shower. The bathroom light was surgically bright. I tried to walk around her to grab the scissors and I tripped over her feet. I tried to pin some hair out of her face and I poked her in the eye. I didn’t think I was nervous but my hands were shaking. I cut off about four inches, then asked, How short did you want it again?
She shrugged. Just a trim, she said.
Oh, I said. I tossed a clump of hair in the sink. I think I’m done.
My sister looked at herself. Her bangs were two inches long, a harsh black hyphen over her forehead. Oh my god, she said. What did you do?
Before I could respond, our mom walked in. She covered her mouth with her hand, eyes wide as saucers, as if she had just walked in on a murder scene. My dad came in next. He did what we all do in times of crisis—he started laughing. And the house was filled with the sound of my sister saying ohmygod and whatdidyoudo, and I kept saying It doesn’t look that bad! and my mom kept staring at the hair in the sink with her mouth open, and my dad kept laughing for so long that he needed to hold the door frame to keep from falling over.
I spent the rest of the night saying sorry, but I also could not stop laughing, and it’s hard to apologize sincerely when you’re smiling. I did feel bad, though. My sister was about to leave home for the first time, and I had given her the same haircut she’d had when she was five.
Yet I knew that this was the sort of story we would all find ourselves telling years from now. Her hair would grow back and we would grow up and one day we would be seated at a dinner table together, not at our parents’ house but at my own (because in this future I am an adult with the money to live in a house and host a dinner party), and my dad would turn to my sister and say, Remember that time Emily ruined your hair right before you left for college? We would laugh, and then someone would ask who was ready for dessert.
But that night my sister just fumed on the couch. The four of us watched When Harry Met Sally together. Every time the screen went dark, my sister caught a glimpse of herself in the reflection, and she’d start complaining all over again. My dad just laughed.
After the diagnosis, my father told my mother that, if she lost her hair to chemo, he would shave his head too. My mother looked at him, horrified, and said, Honey, I love you, but you would look so bad bald!
In another universe, maybe both my parents lost their hair, my mother to her illness and my father to his devotion. But neither of those things happened, and this, I think, is why I’m able to find the story funny. Still, whenever I tell it, no one laughs but me.
I’ve never cut my own hair, but I’ve stood in front of the bathroom mirror with a pair of scissors and stared at myself until my face was no longer my face. I’ve imagined the sound of the snip, the hair falling past my eyes, the strands wilting in the sink like a rotten bouquet.
But when the time comes to make the cut, I never do. I have never trusted myself enough, which is to say, when things go wrong I don’t know how to forgive myself. It’s easier when my redemption relies on someone I love, and I don’t know if I’ve ever loved myself. I would rather be the one with my eyes closed. I would rather let someone else hold the blade.