They are now swaddled in acid-free paper in an acid-free box: three coils of plaited hair. Two are narrow as fettucine (and nearly as flat after all this time), tapering through a curl to nothing; the first a deep, deep brown, the other sandy. The third braid is twice as long as the others and, at its thickest, the breadth of an infant’s forearm. If I place the cut end at the nape of my neck, the tip unfurls heavily to the seat behind me.
No visit to my grandmother was complete without her lifting a small green leatherette suitcase from atop a chifforobe in her bedroom. Underneath packets of photographs, which I also had to examine, she eased out the plastic bags preserving the hair cut from her own head (the great thick braid); her mother Bessie‘s (the thin dark brown one); and her mother’s first cousin, her namesake Hattie Mae (the blondeish plait.) Hattie Mae died in 1908 at the age of 13. Bessie died in 1911 at the age of 19. Her own hair she cut in the late 1950s, after enduring years of headaches from the relentless pressure it exerted when coiled atop her head. It was only the second time she’d cut it.
And so Mama was working at the factory, and I used to go up there and look at her. And so that’s when I first cut my hair. I went there, and the lady was asking Mama at the table where she worked to, and she didn’t say nothing to me, but she said, “Unh, who is that child with all of that long hair?” And she took one of my plaits and held it up. I had it in three plaits. I’ll never forget it. I had one down here used to come here. Yeah, it come down to below the shoulder. Like I plait it up, and it be from there. Two plaits here and then this one down across. And I always put that one behind my ear. ‘Cause I didn’t like it parted in the middle. Seem like it just wasn’t right in the middle. So I asked Mama ‘bout cutting my hair, could I cut my hair. ‘Cause everybody: “How come you don’t cut your hair? ‘Cause you’d look pretty in a bob.” I don’t know. I just wasn’t half combing it. And it was nappy. Like I’d go to try to comb it, and knots would be in there. And then I’d get mad with it. Then I’d take the scissors and clip that little piece off. And then all that other part would come off. And so I wondered, “Mama, could – ” “It’s your head. It’s your hair. I don’t care if you cut it off.” And so one day, a fellow stayed up there on Vick Street was a barber downtown, a colored fellow, Charlie Barnes or whatever his name is. So he passed there one day, and I asked him, “Would you cut my hair for me?” And he said, “Yeah.” Said, “You come on down to the shop.” And I said, “Where is the shop?” And he went on and tried to tell me, and then he stopped there one day, and he told me, he said, “You say you want to get your hair cut?” He said, “You got too pretty a hair to cut.” And I said, “Yeah, but I can’t half comb it.” He said, “Well, anytime you want to come on down there, I’ll cut it for you, if it’s all right with your mama. You ask your mama?” I said, “Yeah, she allowed me to cut it.” So sho ‘nough, I went around there one Saturday morning, went down there. And so, he turned around and cut off my plaits on both sides ‘cause I had two plaits there. He cut them off, and then he put some kind of stuff on it and then somehow fluffed it all up. Awww, I thought I was something. I reckon I was ‘bout 12, 13 years old. After then I cut it off in a boyish bob.
I got a plait of Hattie Mae’s hair and a plait of my mama’s, Bessie’s hair, and then mine. I was looking at that the other day, and I looked at it, and I said, “Huh, it was that long?” Rudy, Rudy Farmer took that picture. ‘Cause I – He saw my hair. I was standing there with my housecoat on. I still got that thing now. And: “Goodness! I didn’t know your hair was that long!” We were staying on Reid Street. And he said, “I’d sure like to have a picture of that.” And I said, “Well, you got a Kodak?” And he said, “Yeah! You’d let me take a picture?” I said, “Yeah.” And so he went home and got it and took a picture of it. I was standing up in one and sitting down in one.