On a Sunday afternoon in the mid-seventies a woman named Mo sat in our lounge. She had an impressive afro of dark, course, frizzy hair.
The wiry mass was restrained by a maroon, fashionably crocheted and holey cap. Mo poked her long, bony finger in the holes to scratch her scalp whenever and wherever it itched.
She was in our lounge to alert my mom to an outbreak of head lice.
She sipped her coffee and spoke and scratched (you’re scratching now too). She wore the cap as a considerate gesture, thoughtfully keeping those industrious, hardworking 1970’s nits behind crochet bars. I did not understand how a cap with so many holes could keep the lice in – it’s like putting someone in the middle of Stonehenge and telling them they’re stuck (not that I knew anything about Stonehenge at nine years of age).
Mo had her finger plugged in the cap for the duration of her visit. A dry, abrasive sound alerted us to a particularly enthusiastic scratching session: the whole cap moved to-and-fro.
Anyway, she said, I must be off. Just keep checking their hair. You know how to do it, don’t you? Look for the eggs.
Not long after that we all had nits.
I’ve had 1970’s head lice.
How many of you can say that?
I’m brave (so my mother says), in part, because of 1970’s head lice.
I was altered by 1970’s head lice.
The treatment was a chemical solution that stung and burnt.
My scalp was on fire. I rolled on the kitchen floor, clutching the nape of my neck. I squeezed my lips together to hold in the moaning cries. If we were brave we would get two pink, chewy sweets once the rinsing and combing was done.
I got my sweets but was left with a heavy, matted, brittle head of hair. My hair was long and blonde. The color was the only thing I liked about it. The rest I regarded as a curse – the thickness, the frizz, the curls.
Life was hard for my hair before nits. After nits it became impossible.
Daily, I tried brushing the back of my hair before school. The bristles of the hairbrush got stuck. So I brushed the sides, skipped the back, and pulled it all into a low ponytail.
Soon, I had a candyfloss bulge hanging from the back of my head. Ignoring the impossible, freakishly big knot, I kept my hair tied back. Eventually, beneath the bauble, my hair resembled a lampshade in shape and size.
My aunt saw me from behind, gasped, and whisked me off to her hairdresser.
Now the hairdresser had to be brave.
She tried to wash my hair, tried to condition it, tried to comb it. She was breathless with trying.
I can’t she said, giving up by leaving the comb dangling from the mammoth knot, as much a signal of defeat as the demonstration of a fact.
What do you suggest? asked my Aunty.
Winky (I swear that was her name) looked at my Aunty and said I’ll have to cut it. Off. All of it. Short.
Winky (I promise you, that was her name) chopped through the knot, sawing it off at the base. Then she styled my hair – I got a fringe, flipped up bits above the ears, and controlling layers. I looked like my older brother.
When we stepped outside I could feel air circulating around my skinny neck.
And that’s how 1970’s head lice altered me – I was gifted a haircut.
Stop scratching. You have not got 2019 nits.
I wore a crocheted cap while I was writing this so it’s not my fault if you have…
Love you always (Stop. Scratching).