My Father’s Hands

Sofia’s hair has recently become long enough for tiny pigtails and dainty barrettes. It’s wildly curly and needs to be thoroughly wetted in the morning so that it transforms from a crazy collection of fluffy cowlicks to an adorable set of tightly curled ringlets all over her head. I love combing it and watching the curls bounce into place.

A couple of days ago, I came across a little tangle in her hair. Tugging to get it out, I lost control of the comb, and it slid down across her ear. She flinched away, of course, and I chuckled. I couldn’t help laughing — I’d suddenly remembered my own experiences with ear-combing.

When I was four, my parents, residents of a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, decided to join another family who’d recently moved to a trapline in Northern British Columbia. It was a remote, beautiful place next to the Stikine River. Our family lived in a tiny cabin right next to the river, and we used the larger cabin up the hill as communal headquarters as well as living space for the other family.

Back on the commune, making breakfast was a chore shared by all the women in turn. Around the time we left, the population of the commune was about 200, so there would have been somewhere between 20 and 50 adult women to shoulder that task. On their mornings to cook, they would get up early, tiptoe out of their individual family homes (or dormitory, if they were single back then), and go to the main building to prepare the meal, which was served at seven. With so many women sharing the job, each woman only had to make breakfast once every couple of weeks. But on the trapline, there were only two women, so my mother would leave the house early about every other day, leaving my dad to get my brother and me ready for the day.

My dad is a gentle, creative man with craftsman’s hands. Those hands can achieve just about anything. Chopping down trees, smoothing the bark off the logs, building them into a shop. Creating his own lathe inside that shop, spinning wood on the lathe into delicate shapes: handles, round picture frames, jewelry boxes, a family of dolls for me. Those hands could sketch wildflowers, create an embroidery pattern, and make delicate stitches on fabric. They can execute a skilled pen-and-ink drawing, form a silly comic, make a detailed charcoal scene. His hands can coax music out of any instrument he picks up — a guitar, a recorder, a banjo. He made his own fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer. Truly, my father’s hands can do anything. Anything except comb a four-year-old’s hair without combing over her ears.

It would start off well. He’d ask my mom for pointers. She’d show him how to hold the hair in one hand, combing tangles out of the ends first, working upward. He’d try so hard to be gentle, starting on one side, successfully avoiding the first ear, working around to the other. We’d be almost done. I’d finally relax, positive that this time my ear would be safe. And then, RIP! The comb’s teeth would scrape over my sensitive ear, I’d wail, and he’d slump in defeat.

The rare times that my dad would manage to get all the way through my hair without combing my ear, he’d succumb to an even worse pitfall. Just above my ear on the right side of my head, hidden under my hair, is a wen. It’s a bump that used to be small, before it was built up with all the scar tissue from having its top ripped off with a comb, over and over. My dad would be so focused on avoiding my ears that he’d forget about the wen. The comb’s teeth would catch the top and rip off the fragile skin. Blood would seep out, matting my hair. We’d arrive at breakfast with one side of my hair still bedtime-fuzzy, stuck together with blood, and my mother would sigh and shake her head. And then for days I’d flinch anytime a comb came close to me, because while combing my ear was painful, combing the top off the wen was agonizing.

It’s funny, though. Having my hair combed by my dad hurt back then, but now, that sudden memory is heartwarming. I’m so glad that I have the memory of my father’s strong hands cradling my head, working a comb through my hair, making my hair shine despite the awkwardness that came from the unaccustomed task. And now it’s my turn to do the same for my daughter, feeling her baby hair spiral around my fingers, finding tricks to get her head in the right position, gently easing tangles out, and remembering how hard my father tried to be just as gentle with me as I try to be with my own little girl.