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Braiding Me Softly

As we heard in BackTalk today, this week's parenting conversation prompted a flood of listener comments. The video of a little black girl crying and screaming — while she's cursed and laughed at by a caregiver — also raised difficult memories for the guests who participated in the conversation. At one point in the discussion, Michel remarked that everyone had tears in their eyes.

When I think about getting my hair done as a child, I cry, too. But not for the reason you might think.

The worse thing my mother ever did while combing my hair was sing.

I remember hours and hours of my neck getting stiff and my attitude getting sour as my mother wove my hair into intricate rows of braids. I couldn't play or even read, because I had to keep my head absolutely still.

My mother wasn't a big fan of television — and this was the pre-cable, pre-V.C.R. era anyway — so there wasn't really anything to watch.

So to pass the time, my mother sang to me ... showtunes like "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" from Gigi, or "My Little Girl" from Carousel, or other mother-daughter songs like "You and Me Against the World," or "Turn Around."

Where are you going, my little one, little one,

Where are you going, my baby, my own?

Turn around and you're two,

Turn around and you're four,

Turn around and you're a young girl going out of my door.

Turn around, turn around,

Turn around and you're a young girl going out of my door.

I would have LIKED to go out the door ... to a salon to get my hair straightened. I grew up in an integrated, but majority white, neighborhood. And kids of all colors teased me MERCILESSLY about my hair. But until I turned 12, my mother refused to let me straighten it, insisting that the idea that straight hair was better was a racist lie.

Of course, now that makes sense to me. But during my childhood — and more of my young adulthood than I'd like to admit— I saw my mother's praise of my natural hair as one of those kooky things parents do just to embarrass you.

Once, when I was twenty-something, I joked off-handedly about her singing ... how I came to associate it with having my Saturday afternoons ruined by getting my hair done for 4 or 5 hours. My mother was crushed. She'd imagined that we were having wonderful mother-daughter bonding time, years of happy memories that I instantly spoiled.

Trying to be funny.

I apologized right away. And years later, watching that video, and hearing horror stories about what so many other girls had to endure, I experienced what — for me — is a too familiar realization: not only had my mother been RIGHT about yet another thing, but that I had been a bit of a brat.

And I couldn't help crying, thinking how lucky I was to have a mother who told me I was pretty, even when everyone on the playground said I wasn't ... a mother who didn't condemn me for being ungrateful, even when I was ... and how lucky I am now to have my mother around to help me figure out how to be a good mother to my son.

Thanks, Mom.

— Alicia Montgomery