I sat in a chair in my mother’s bathroom as a twenty-something South Asian woman, waiting for my hair to be cut and layered.
It was like Déjà vu of my awkward tween years when my mom would lovingly take the knots out of my hair with a comb while tears fell down my cheek. I remember how she’d apply strong Dabur Amla hair oil from the Indian grocery store to help calm my frizz. I’d immediately hate it because I knew my friends could smell it from a mile away. When she wasn’t looking, I remember taking a towel and wiping off some of the remnants of the oil to mask the smell before I got dropped off to school.
At 29, I didn’t think I’d still have my mom cut my hair, but then again, I didn’t think I’d be back living in the same childhood home where we used to rewind VHS video or wait for someone to get off the landline so we could use the internet. At 29, it was like I was still stuck in a time machine in the ‘90s. I assumed I would have moved out by now, perhaps started a family, and had a steady job. Instead, I was driving down the same streets I frequented as a kid.
A few weeks ago, my mom sent me a text that became nothing short of a sweet gesture: “Hi Moni, I can cut your hair if you’d like.” (I think it was also an excuse to spend quality time with me, which was nice because we hadn’t done that in a long time). I found that with my mom, it was so much easier to text than have a face-to-face conversation about certain things.
Her text took me by surprise because most of our conversations have always ended up being prolonged mother-daughter arguments and then brief make-up sessions with one of us sending cute heart gifs or links to cute dog videos.
Here I was, sitting in a chair in her bedroom bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror, wondering where the heck my twenties went while my mother examined her scissors and put her glasses on to dissect my damaged, coarse black hair. My nerves were just as bad as a first date or interview.
Mom knew I was going to get a professional haircut, but that I was on a tight budget and was probably looking to save every dime, with my persistent freelance job-hopping and figuring out my life in the midst of a career change.
I appreciated her thinking of me and doing something so intimate as cutting someone else’s hair. There was something powerful she was doing at that moment — it was a beautiful token of appreciation, of letting me know that I’ll always be her daughter: the awkward, lanky, Indian girl who felt uncomfortable in her skin for much of her life.
“Try to sit still,” my mom said, as I fidgeted in my chair in her bathroom. It was just like I was 10 years old again, dreading having a hairdresser snip my locks.
Mom had recently been watching a lot of YouTube videos on how to cut and get that desired layered haircut without ever stepping foot in a hair salon. I noticed her watching these videos with fascination, and I couldn’t help but feel happy that she found a new hobby. I was happy to be her muse.
My mom went out of her way to turn her bedroom bathroom into a hairdresser’s abode. She set her iPad near the sink, against the mirror, and paused the video after every snip. In the background, she put on some Drake in the background to mute out the awkward silence. Somewhere in between a close listening of Drake and the Youtube haircut tutorial, I felt a wave of closeness to my mom I hadn’t previously felt during my awkward teen, tween, and college years. I smiled and unstiffened my composure and tried to show a sense of gratitude as an adult.
Our mother-daughter relationship has always been rocky, ever since I moved back home a few years ago after a brief reporting stint in Northern California. Somehow we weren’t as close as the years prior. We occasionally hung out and even went to a Jhene Aiko concert together in DTLA, but I still felt a distance I couldn’t quite put my finger on. We drifted somewhere between me moving out and living alone in Northern California and then moving back home because I couldn’t support myself financially and I knew I wanted to be closer to family.
In the years since then, I always gave myself a hard time for moving back home and feeling as though my life was stagnating with random freelance writing gigs and no stability or 401k plan in place as I chased my dreams of becoming a journalist. But dreams don’t always pay the bills.
I watched as other friends moved into new homes, dealt with real adult issues, kids, and whatnot while I sort of just froze in time. I unfairly projected my own frustrations onto my parents and realized that I had some major soul-searching to do.
Moving back home, I initially couldn’t help but feel like I was thrust back into my childhood lifestyle — it was creatively stifling at times, and it felt like I was back home with an adult curfew.
I worried that I would get a midnight text from my parents, asking me about my whereabouts, or having to explain to a date that, “I still live with mom and dad” at home. I tried to mute these irrational worries and explain to myself that I’m a grown ass woman with a plan in place.
I would stare at the same Beatles poster that was planted on my wall and noticed the same tape that held it up during my high school years. It survived all these years, so why couldn’t I?
There were years when I dreaded going to South Asian weddings, baby showers, and other events simply because of the questions that would come out of an auntie or uncle’s mouths: “So when is she getting married?” “What does Monica do for a living?”
Of course, all these desi auntie and uncles become sorely disappointed when my parents happily responded and told them I’m a writer and not a lawyer or doctor like they had wrongly assumed.
Mom had an arranged marriage at the age of 19 in Karamsad, India, and dating was not an option for her in years prior. When she immigrated to the U.S., she became a stay-at-home-mom. As my brother and I became older, she started working retail at the now-defunct Montgomery Ward, to eventually shelving books as a library page, and then, 20 years later, becoming a library assistant and living her dreams despite the inner critic that told her she should have completed a college degree instead of getting married.
During my childhood, I remember my mom would take me to the public library and nurture my love for reading and allow me to check out as many copies of “Highlights” Magazine as possible. She instilled in me a love for the written word that is still very much alive today.
In elementary school, my mom made it a point to enroll me in every extracurricular activity and Girl Scout outing to help me get out of my shell. I was a shy kid who was not comfortable in her deep brown, eczema skin.
In middle school, I remember begging my mom to let me shave or wax my legs to get over the fear of undressing in the locker room and being stared at and teased. She let me know that I shouldn’t change myself or alter my body to make others feel comfortable. After much whining, my mom finally gave in and let me modify my body with a razor though she reminded me that I should never try to change myself to please someone else.
Throughout the years, although our talks never consisted of topics like sex or relationships, I respected my mother for looking after me and protecting my heart from potential heartbreak. I remember when we’d watch PG-13 movies, I’d feel so uncomfortable during all the kissing scenes that I’d close my eyes and semi-peek to see if the painful ordeal was over.
Mom even went out of her way to enroll me in afterschool dance classes at the school gymnasium even though I dreaded the thought of dancing in front of a stage. She even tried to help me assimilate with my peers and make me not feel like the only Indian American Brownie Girl Scout who went to a Spice Girls’ themed slumber party at my scout leader’s house and got singled out because I was the only vegetarian there.
Growing up in an Indian American household, I felt uncomfortable using the three words every other family around me seemed to use: “I love you.” Although my parents rarely uttered these words, they showed their love and affection in different ways — the kind that reminded me of my roots in the form of an Indian folktale right before my mom tucked me into bed. It was the type of love basked in Bollywood movie marathons, window shopping trips to the mall where my mom and I sampled chocolate and skincare products; or the kind where my mom tried to teach me how to make round rotis and not burn the house down; or the kind where she tried to soothe my tears when I had a major friend breakup.
With time and maturity, I grew to appreciate that I could still live in the same house as my parents as they started to age while having a separate life of my own, with no memory of my old life. It was nothing short of a blessing to be able to be back in my childhood home, as much as I felt stuck or like I wasn’t progressing career or relationship-wise. I felt a responsibility to be at home to support my parents even though I tried not to compare my life with those around me who seemed to have it easy finding long-term full-time gigs. I continued to live in the same city where I went to preschool, elementary, and high school.
I reminded myself there wasn’t anything wrong with nearing your 30s and still living in the same zip code from two decades ago.
Instead of giving myself a hard time about it, I eventually gave myself space to be appreciative of having a roof over my head and not feeling obligated to hit certain life markers or milestones to feel as though “I’ve made it.” Being back in my childhood home was in no way an indicator of my achievements or accomplishments. In many ways, it helped me have a better appreciation of the things I took advantage in my earlier years. I had a deeper connection to my city and an eagerness to learn about it decades later. Seeing it through 29-something-eyes is way different than before.
Mom parted my coarse, unruly hair in the middle, and asked me to check if it was centered. She massaged my scalp, took out her scissors, found her line of reference, and cut off the dead ends. It was like a beautiful cleansing ritual — one that shed off layers of my insecurity and the words or conversations I had always meant to say to my mom.
The layers of my hair looked feathery and wholesome — like a phoenix rising from the flames (as cliche as it seems). It was like I was a brand new person. The woman who gave birth to me nurtured me once more, using her hands to show appreciation for her daughter and love in a way that couldn’t be expressed in words. With every cut, I felt like every old part of my old self was being restored and nursed back to health. We didn’t exchange many words, as has been the case for many years. But at the moment, I felt a deep love for the woman who gave birth to her preemie child, weighing at three pounds, named after Nurse Monica at the Queen of the Valley Hospital in Covina, California.
My mom is in her fifties now, and there’s been plenty of times when we’ve been mistaken for being sisters. Hanging out with her now is a blessing in disguise. I remind myself that everything in this world is temporary, and we don’t know how long we have with our loved ones.
With all these experiences, I know my mother has always been my side. Getting a haircut at a salon just won’t “cut it” for me now.
-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni
*Post originally featured on Medium.