Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem
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This is what my daughter is REALLY asking when she asks me to braid her hair

When I sit with her and my hands are on her, and my eyes too, she tells me things.
"Mama, will you braid my hair?"

Illustration by Avi Katz
"Mama, will you braid my hair?" Illustration by Avi Katz

My daughter has mermaid hair — long burnished curls that tangle at the ends, her hair smells like lavender and salt. We cut it once — just her bangs. But the ends are hers since she was born. My daughter and I are alike in many ways, but our hair is different.

I grew up with short hair — my mom would take me to Supercuts once a month, and I looked like Tinkerbell.

Sometimes, people asked if I was a boy.

Everything I learned about long hair I learned from playing with Barbies, and even then, at some point, I would take a scissors to them and hack the ends until they looked like punk rock goddesses.

But my daughter’s hair is a fairytale creature, with attitude.

Cutting it feels sacrilegious but it’s also a pain in the ass.

When she was 2, she would scream when I would comb it out. Even with the detangling spray, she would scream. Even as she got older . Or she would stalk away from me and put it in a ponytail when I would try to comb it out.

It became a chore for both of us. I dreaded it. She dreaded it. She would howl at me. She would hiss. The brush would get tangled in her curls and her eyes would fill with tears.

But then she turned 10 and started looking in the mirror. She stands to the side and sucks in her stomach. She faces herself head on and tucks a curl behind her ear.

When she wears it long and flowing she looks like a warrior goddess, enchanted princess, hero of her own story.

Mostly, she wears it in a braid.

She watches me now when I put makeup on and I do my hair. She sees my stretchmarks and my scars.

And lately, every night after she showers, she hands me the brush and she wants me to braid her hair.

It’s annoying. She always does it when I’m in the middle of something else — dinner, or reading, or just stretched out on the couch like a lazy cat.

Evenings are hard when it’s just you and the kids, and no other grownup, and sometimes we fight, and some days are boring, and sometimes I just want to be anywhere else but on that couch or in that kitchen, or in the house — some days, I just want to sleep.

I’m a good mother, I’d like to think. But I’m not the kind of mother who knows how to get stains out of shirts or cook a yummy meal without a box, or braid hair. I’m the kind of mother who will steal a pirate ship in the middle of the night and sail off to the moon with my kids and be back before sunrise.

I’m the mother who will teach her kids how to climb walls and walk on roofs, how to sing in cisterns, and dance in the fields at sunset barefoot.

But I do not braid hair.

But, there’s my daughter — her feet firmly rooted to the earth, and her eyes on me:

“Mama, can you braid my hair?”

“In a minute, baby,” and then a minute stretches to five, and then 10, and then an hour goes by, and she asks again “Mama, can you braid my hair.”

“Sweetheart, I’m in the middle of something. Can’t you just do it?”

And yes, she can do it — I’ve seen her. I’ve seen how she combs out her hair until it glistens, how her fingers fold each strand over strand like challah. She can braid her own hair.

But she’s standing there, my little Taurus child, stubborn and resolute and her brush in her hand.

“Mama, I want you to do it,” she stares at me.

And so I do. Night after night, a chore I could do without doing, I run the brush through her hair, carefully. Her hair that smells like lavender and salt, I wrap it in my fingers like seaweed, it hangs all the way to her back.

I fold strand over strand over strand over strand until a braid hangs down her back.

It isn’t a pretty braid. It isn’t neat like the kind her father makes, but it’s hanging there, the pieces mostly together. I’m learning how to manage her long hair.

And when I sit with her and my hands are on her, and my eyes too, she tells me things about school, about the other girls, about her hopes for the year, and her fears too, strand over strand over strand.

We talk about other things, too — about what it’s like to live between worlds, to feel things, to struggle, to never find a space that makes total sense.

Night after night, The same braid. Messy, not at all tidy, but I’m there folding strand over strand over strand over strand, and she talks and I listen, and it hits me suddenly that it isn’t about the braid. Because she can make a better one. It isn’t about the braid because she takes it out in the morning anyway and goes with her hair in a ponytail. It isn’t about he braid, but it’s all about sitting there and making the braid, focusing only on her for those few minutes, her hair, and her stories while the rest of the world fades away.

“Mama can you braid my hair,” she asks me tonight after she slammed the door in my face just an hour before. She’ll be 11 in the spring, and I can see the changes in her body already, and her hair is even longer than it was yesterday.

Technically, I’m not speaking to her. Technically, I’m still mad.

Just an hour before, she told me she hated me and wished I weren’t her mom. And I may have called her an ungrateful little shit.

I told you, we are alike in many ways — both of us with our big, huge feelings.

“Mama, can you braid my hair?” she says again with her brush in her hand. I lift her salty hair and wrap it around my fingers and pull her close.

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel. She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems, and she now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people — especially taxi drivers. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.
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