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Tender-Headed


Photo courtesy of Jillian Robinson

I never expected my mother to be sitting on the porch. I have not seen her sit on the porch since I was 11 or 12 years old. Around the time she stopped braiding my hair. I asked her for braids like Jada Pinkett wore in Menace II Society and from that point I was going to the salon once a month getting my hair braided for the next two years. After an interrogation about me watching Menace II Society. I blamed it on my brother Isa, but the truth was that I watched the weekend I stayed with my cousin Ava and Aunt Keisha.


It was Aunt Keisha that convinced my mother to let me perm my hair for my 8th grade formal. By then, I wanted a haircut like Halle Berry’s, because all the boys in 8th grade were in love with her. Mom wasn’t going for me cutting my hair, but she relented, thanks to Aunt Keisha. Those long days in the shop listening to the women talk about their husbands, boyfriends, other women’s husbands, jobs, children and so much more were like some sort of training ground, the dos and don’ts of womanhood. 


I loved it. But silently I missed Saturdays on the porch with my mother fussing about me being tender-headed, playing too hard, and not doing a good enough job washing my hair. It’s true that she combed me into tears more than once, but looking back, that time with her was priceless. 


She always worked long hours, so Saturdays were ours. My dad and brother were always at some practice or game or doing whatever fathers do with their sons. Me and mom, we cleaned the house, grocery shopped, and she did my hair. One Saturday a month she would go to Ivette's Hair Creations and get her hair done. I would usually go to Aunt Keisha’s during that time. When I asked why I couldn’t go, she explained that my mother needed time to just be a woman on those days.


I didn’t understand what she meant, so Aunt Keisha looked me in the eye and said, “My sister is more than you and Isa’s mother or George’s wife. She’s Jackie first and sometimes she needs to remind herself of that.”

Twenty-five years later that makes all the sense in the world. I have a husband, a daughter, a career, and little time to remember that I’m a woman first. That I have needs beyond my family, my job, an identity beyond the roles I play.


I stared at her sitting on the porch and saw the version of her I carried in my heart; younger, tougher, prepared to take on the world for her little family. But today, she looked tired, worn by the world, by my father, by two children that barely took the time visit or call. My brother sent a generic text with emojis for Mother’s Day and though she won’t say it, I know it really hurt her. 


It seems like my dad was always on the go, he found other boys to spend his Saturdays with after Isa was rudely awakened from his hoop dreams. He coached basketball, baseball, football, soccer for a season, even picked up a second job on weekends, anything to get out of the house it seemed.


My mother had long stopped going to Ivette’s. I came home for Thanksgiving sophomore year to see that she’d gone natural. She now wore her hair in a little afro that looked so perfect as it grayed. Ava tells me that my father didn’t speak to her for weeks after she cut her hair. She told me he said some ignorant mess like people would think he was married to a man when they saw them in the street. 


I never asked my mother if it was true. I never asked my mother why she stayed with my father and seemingly stayed so miserable. I never asked my mother many things. Watching her look at me as I walked towards the porch brought back so many memories of what was never said between us, things Aunt Keisha stepped in to talk to me about.


My mother was always “Mom” to me, she never took the time to be the woman I imagined she was in Ivette’s. My father and Isa spent time at the barbershop together. Mom dropped me off and ran errands. Dad talked to Isa about sex. Mom told me not to bring home any babies.


I always reimagined those Saturdays she spent braiding my hair. Instead of telling me how dirty my scalp was or complaining about me being tender-headed, she would tell me I was beautiful, ask me if I had a crush on any of the boys in my class, talk to me about making sure I spoke up for myself, not to apologize when I didn’t need to. That lesson came from Ms. Michelle. She was my work-study supervisor in the registrar’s office during my first year. I had a bad habit of saying I’m sorry every two or three sentences. She pulled me to the side one day and told me, “Baby, please stop saying you’re sorry. You are anything but. You have a right to say and do anything that doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s like some man told you that you were taking up too much space and rest assured, you don’t need to apologize for just being.”


It wasn’t a man; it was my mother. She always made me feel like I was in her way, a nuisance of some sort. Nearly every time I opened my mouth, she seemed to roll her eyes or outright ignore me. I felt invisible to her, more like a responsibility and not the spitting image of her. But of course, I never told her how I felt then, how I feel now.


How do you ask your mother if she loves you?


There are two pictures of our family from my high school and college graduations sitting in the living room. My dad’s beaming with pride, Asa is trying to be cool but drapes his arm around me in both photos. There's a bit of distance between my mother and the rest of us. That distance says so much to me in my thirties. She's not smiling in either photo; she’s not looking at the camera in one and staring at the three of us in the other. 

She looks at us like she doesn’t know us. The same way she stares at me as I approach her on the porch.


“Happy Birthday, Mom! Ready for lunch?”


She stands, smooths an imaginary wrinkle in her dress, grabs her purse, and starts down the stairs. I notice someone is missing.


“Mom, is Dad coming?”


She never breaks stride and was waiting for me to unlock the car when she noticed I wanted an answer.


“I told your father to never darken my doorway or my life again.”

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