If you saw the way she looked the last time I saw her, you'd never believe that she used to be pretty, engaging, have a sort of bright mind, and be the kind of calmly hip person to inspire a child. But she was.
This girl, a slovenly, sad, mind-mangled creature, was once the fresh young thing that taught me to wash my hair properly. Three sisters I had then, yet it was a high school dropout that had gotten preggers at the age of 14, that showed me what I needed to do.
It was like this: I had cleaned my hair, I thought, and was having trouble brushing it through. I think I was 9, or maybe 8 or 10-- somewhere there in the firm hand of pre-teen silliness and self-consciousness.
S. saw me flailing around, and offered to comb me out. She was over to see my sister, her friend, but really to share our family's vibe, since hers was kinda more fucked up than ours. I think she had a crush on my oldest brother, too. And the first thing she did was tell me not to use a brush on wet hair, because it could tear it and cause tangles and split ends.
This piece of advice made her an instant guru to me. She went to our bathroom and found a slim, long rat-tail comb, and began trying to fix my hair with it, but I hadn't gotten all the shampoo, and then conditioner, rinsed out. it was clotted in clumps and itchy as hell.
"You have to rinse it better, Mary." she told me, and then took me into the bathroom and made me stick my head under the faucet. She rinsed me clear, then put a little cream rinse in, combed it through, rinsed it out again, and this is the brilliant part-- showed me what it should feel like when I had it really clean. That feeling against your fingers, that lets you know you're done.
Then she towel dried my head and combed carefully through every single strand, starting gently at the bottom instead of the top, showing me how that would remove tangles without stretching, pulling and tearing my fine, thin straight flyaway hair. She must have spent 45 minutes or more helping me, which is approximately 44 minutes more than any of my brothers or sisters had spent with me since I left infancy.
She and my sister parted ways with much acrimony, amid suspicions of someone seducing someone they weren't supposed to; my kind mother, who was called Mom by at least 2 dozen more children than she had actually produced, kept in touch with S. for years, allowing the progressively misguided girl to call her and spill out her troubles from time to time.
The girl's son had been taken from her at fifteen, then returned, then taken again. She herself went in and out of mental wards and was put on nearly every kind of brain-altering drug that existed back then. Her intelligence dropped by degrees, and her judgment of men's intentions, never very sound, got her into all kinds of scrapes and heartbreak. the last time I spoke with her, she was barely capable of speaking a coherent sentence.
It's one the saddest little true stories I know. I wouldn't want to see her, now, because she isn't that hopeful helpful girl anymore, but a piece of human wreckage. The sadness of her life depletes me, if I think of it too often.
So this is for her, wherever she is: a small, useless, but heartfelt thank you for the attention and care she gave me one afternoon, long ago. Whatever others feel about her, I choose to remember that sweet chunk of time she offered, and her generous concern about something everyone around me had ignored. It made a big difference in my perception of myself, and my understanding of why I should take care of myself.
I hope she has found some unexpected generosity, herself.
© By Mari Kozlowski, May 22, 2013