Split Ends by Rowan McCandless
Rowan McCandless’s “Split Ends” is the first-place winner of the 2023 CRAFT Hybrid Writing Contest, guest judged by Nicole McCarthy.
Hair is something we typically view in a superficial way, without diving into how it identifies and defines us. Giving a lock is considered lucky in some cultures, but to another culture it’s rendering your power. “Split Ends” is a beautifully woven experiment tracing the narrator’s exploration of her hair and her history, and wondering how it will define her future. There is a familial push and pull through every memory shared with her mother to understand and embrace dual identities, while also questioning femininity, motherhood, and how society defines the two. The narrator skillfully demonstrates how hair can be a symbol of beauty, rebellion, and formidable self-love. This essay, through every image and vignette, is a stunning journey of longing and transformation. —Nicole McCarthy
When my mother died, I inherited a sizeable goldenrod-coloured envelope; inside, I discovered birthday cards given to me from family members throughout my childhood, handmade get-well cards crafted by classmates upon the occasion of having one of several surgeries between the ages of six and seven; my stellar, and sometimes less than inspirational, report cards from grades one through twelve; and a brown paper bag, labelled June 13 (which was also my mother’s birthday), the year, and the words, Leslie’s First Haircut, handwritten in my mother’s perfect penmanship. Leslie, a name that has not been mine since I legally changed it over fifteen years ago.To have and to hold onto a keepsake of someone’s hair has been considered an act of intimacy. Keeping a lock of your infant’s or child’s hair was often intended to bestow good fortune upon the child. During bygone eras, a strand of loved ones’ hair was often cut and kept before kin and sweethearts were sent off to battle or to seek their fortunes. A snippet of hair, a tangible reminder of those no longer present, those lost across time and ocean tides.I’d like to believe my mother kept a lock of my hair all these years as a sign of affection – evidence that once upon a time, she had loved and wanted the best for me; a more comforting thought than believing she had a preternatural understanding that I would be the child to go AWOL; become the MIA casualty of our family’s dysfunction.After decades of hair colouring, I was surprised to discover a lock of dark brown hair with auburn undertones within that paper bag. I don’t remember this, my virgin hair.
Forgotten roots, I suppose.I’ve never considered my hairstyle’s constant state of flux and reinvention; how hair has marked both major and minor milestones in my life. I’ve never taken the opportunity to look back – until now.
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Estranged for years from my mother, I visited her three times in the hospital before she succumbed to the sudden, devastating stroke that felled her. Mom had become a faded reflection of her former self, yet even her brief and sporadic moments of quasi-lucidity frightened me. It was difficult seeing Mom lying helpless, the left side of her body immobilised, her hair askew and riddled with grey; this fiercely independent woman who consistently Clairol-coloured her hair every month throughout the years I’d known her.My hair has yielded to a ROYGBIV rainbow cascade of highlights throughout the years. I’ve gone from a full head of medium chocolate brown to dark royal chestnut, jet black, back to midnight blue onyx. I’ve added golden highlights, subtracted amethyst undertones. My hair has been Jessica Rabbit red and Debbie Harry platinum blonde. From henna packs to drugstore boxed brands to salon professional colourists, I continue to dye my hair to this day.
Take, at face value, all those I spy with my CSI procedural TV-watching eyes, the viability of DNA extraction from a single strand of hair. The hair shaft holds no nuclear DNA, no weave of double helix waiting to provide that aha moment of, Detective, looks like we’ve discovered the perp’s identity. The hair root is the structure that contains a person’s DNA; even then, there is only a 60-70% rate of successful extraction.The details I remember concerning my mother’s stroke and hospital stay are strange. I thought how odd it was that her legs (exposed from the knees down from beneath her blue hospital gown) were smooth as if freshly shaven, as if she had taken the time earlier in the day to prepare herself before stepping out, perhaps wearing a summer’s cotton shift on her way to go shopping. Legs shaved baby smooth before life took an alternative route following tangled synaptic strands of devastation.
Sometimes I’ve wondered if it would be possible to clone myself from any wayward and wilful DNA hidden within the tresses my mother kept. Sometimes, I wonder if my clone would be free of the memories I tried to forget. But then, would I want to meet the me I might have been?Hair carried such weight and so many expectations within my family. Being considered mixed-race, biracial, Black, one thing was certain – within my family and extended family, I had been blessed or cursed, depending on who was asked, with good hair, meaning hair that was more European in texture and appearance than African. Springy curls had unfurled, systematically contained and tamed thanks to the devastation of euro-colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.I tried not to read too much into my mother’s collection of curiosities. The keepsakes I needed most from her were the truth, the story of her life, whatever lost hopes and shattered dreams had caused Mom to bring such vengeful wrath upon my childhood, my path to adulthood. But that knowledge was a gift taken with her to the grave.When I turned four, my parents commissioned my portrait by an Indigenous artist, who rendered my likeness with oil pastels. A crowd gathered to watch as I was propped up on stage at the Eaton’s department store to sit and be still while my image was captured for posterity. I can still hear the echoes of people’s voices.
“Oh, how sweet. Would you just look at those ringlet curls?”
Given the social construct of race, the transatlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, and the enslavers’ rape of ancestral mothers and grandmothers whose names have been stolen from me, whom do I blame for hair texture prized, vilified by external and internalized racism?As executors of Mom’s estate, my brothers dismantled, donated, collected, collated, and sold her belongings. Powerless, I watched pieces of my mother’s life disappear on Kijiji and eBay, at yard and estate sales where I wasn’t welcome. I wanted to scream, tear out my hair in grief and frustration. I wanted the world to rail with me, to keen the loss of my mother.My hair grew fast and thick as weeds during childhood. Mom figured an entire summer with that full head of hair was me asking for heatstroke. Until grade five, the end of the school year meant two things: amusing myself during summer holidays and a trip to Marianne’s Hair Salon with my mother. Marianne’s was a small operation; a couple of styling stations, a sink to wash hair, old-school helmet hair dryers that sounded like jet planes taking off down the runways, and a wall of mirrors. On the salon’s walls and windows overlooking the street were posters of white women with coiffured hairstyles. On the countertop, laden with hair products, were fashionable heads of mannequins displaying fashionable hairstyles.
In some cultures, a lock of hair would be cut and woven into intricate bouquets, wreaths, broaches, necklaces, and bracelets after death. Women often crafted these mementos of remembrance using glass beads and wire.After Mom died, my brothers wanted to know if I had any recollection of a comb that might have accompanied my mother’s silver vanity brush and mirror set, an item which would have increased the dollar value on eBay. I informed my brothers that such a comb never existed. I would know because, during my childhood, I’d brush my mother’s hair as she sat cross-legged on the living room floor, watching television. I was fascinated by Mom’s shoulder-length blonde hair – locks so unlike my own, which was thick and coarse and wayward of curl by comparison. With bobby pins in hand and far more creativity than talent, I would style her hair in unintended lopsided updos, inwardly praying she would try to look pretty, so my father wouldn’t leave us.After a final spin in the salon chair and my mother’s nod of approval, I’d hop down, neck and back itchy with wayward clips of hair, careful not to disturb Marianne as she swept and collected my trimmings, which would be used for the making of wigs. It made me feel special, the thought that my hair had worth, that it was a prized object, coveted by others. I wondered if some women craved hair like mine as much as I craved my mother’s love and attention.My babies were born with healthy crops of hair on their heads; the youngest’s hair was so impressive that the maternity ward nurses swore that she looked to be wearing a wig. I thought, now that’s an excellent entrepreneurial idea – wigs for bald babies, but then the drugs given during my daughter’s delivery wore off.On Sundays during our childhood, my brothers and I attended Catholic Mass with our mother. Mom and I would cover our hair with babushkas, plain nylon kerchiefs we knotted under our chins before heading out for church. I never understood what made my hair so sinful, the hair of all females in attendance so beguiling that we had to cover it in church. I never understood why my brothers, the boys and men who sat next to us on wooden pews, who stood behind the pulpit sermonising, why they didn’t bear the burden of similar shame.I’m not sure how old I was when I realised that my hair was not the crowning achievement I was led to believe it. Did it happen while I was coveting my best friend Patty’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed Chatty Cathy doll? Did it occur when my father brought me a present from Sioux Lookout, a brown-haired, big-bottomed baby doll that he said reminded him of me? Maybe it was the day I took a pair of Mom’s scissors and chopped that doll’s hair all to shit?Perhaps it happened while reading Stories of Fun and Adventure or Fun with Dick and Jane, school primers that held no images of my family or me? Maybe the notion of nonexistence began with fairy tales: the trials and tribulations of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Briar Rose, and Rapunzel locked into a tower – her yards of golden hair her only link to the outside world?Mom’s hair was white-blonde as a child and she stood out from her two dark-haired sisters. Mom’s hair remained blonde as a teenager, albeit more golden in tone. Around the age of eighteen, Mom sported a honey-blonde chignon as a contestant for Spring Carnival Queen at her community club.And when my youngest brother was born, my mother transformed her hair colour into ravishing Rita Hayworth red. To me, Mom looked like a glamorous movie star.I’ve kept wispy strands of my infant’s hair, remembrances tucked for safekeeping within Beatrice Potter and Winnie the Pooh baby books.My paternal grandfather was born in South Carolina in 1895. In some parts of the Southern United States and within some sections of the African-American community, it would be unthinkable to give away a lock of your hair. In West African spirituality, there was, and remains to this day, the belief that hair held the strength and essence of the owner. To give away a lock of hair or nail trimmings was to hand over your power.Under Mattel’s spell, Mom was with me when I selected my first Barbie doll. I have this hazy image of store shelves filled with rows of Barbie dolls and their accoutrements. I wanted to choose Barbie, the pony-tailed, blonde bombshell. Instead, I picked her best friend, Midge – Midge with her facial freckles and wiry nut-brown hair curled at the bottom in a flip – whose presence most represented Mom’s perception of me. You make sure people know you’re Black, she’d tell me after some stranger took a look at me and assumed that I wasn’t. I resented Midge from the moment I brought her home. It was true that blondes had more fun when it came to playing Barbies. My best friend Patty’s Barbie doll was always off on glamorous outings, was popular, and even had a boyfriend named Ken. On the other hand, Midge was doomed to the life of the perpetual bland sidekick.I’ve kept snippets from my daughters’ first haircuts, rituals passed down through generations, I suppose.During junior high school, the hairstyle most coveted amongst girls my age was long, preferably blonde, and poker straight. I yearned to risk the scalp burns that could result from ironing your tresses between layers of towels on the ironing board.Just before grade seven class photos were taken, Mom’s glitzy sister, Viv, from Hollywood, California, decided to grace us with her presence. By now, Mom had given up on the glamour. I think my father’s affairs and the limited options available to women during the fifties and sixties finally broke her. Aunt Viv blew into town looking like a Vegas showgirl. She peppered her conversations with words like “cool cats” and “a couple of real swingers.” When she offered to style my hair for picture day, I eagerly said yes. Between the wire cage bristled rollers and the bobby pins digging into my scalp, it was difficult to fall asleep that night. Come morning, Mom brewed coffee while Aunt Viv methodically removed rollers, primped, teased, arranged, and sprayed my hair under a thick cloud of hair spray. When the fog lifted, the tears began to fall because my hair looked like Dolly Parton’s on a super bad hair day.
“A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” —Coco Chanel
My hairstyles have marked the passage of time. During girlhood my hair was styled in pixie cuts. In junior high I wore a chic shag – a layered cut, wispy towards the bottom that emulated Joan Jett. During high school, a Farrah Fawcett feathered flip of backward curls framed my face, along with the addition of rainbow-coloured highlights and barely-there eyebrows by grade twelve.Mom never said a peep about my constant reinvention with hairstyles. Perhaps it was because she was too busy criticising me about my weight, my friends, and my plans to attend university to focus additional attention on my hair.In the spiritual practice of hoodoo, also known as Rootwork, hair and nail clippings are viewed as a powerful and popular addition to spell work, especially used to enhance spellcasting against an individual.My mother didn’t teach me how to dye my hair except by leading by example. At sixteen, my quest for blonde highlights, a goal much easier said than done, began with drugstore bottles of hydrogen peroxide and leave-in hair lightener (that did little more than make my hair smell faintly of lemons). Given my natural hair colour, becoming blonde would be no small feat.First-year university, I wanted to rock Donna Summer’s disco hair. I wanted to emulate my paternal aunts and cousins. I wanted to feel like I belonged and discover the roots that might have been. My cousin’s girlfriend, Callie, worked at a salon and offered to perm my hair. The process took a few hours, and the perming solution smelled goddess-awful, but the results were better than I could ever have imagined. Springy curls on a head held high, I made my way to the bus stop in my white cotton jumpsuit and leather espadrilles. A man leered at me from the sidewalk. He asked how much I charged. I felt like I’d done something wrong, that my attire and appearance had somehow given the wrong impression.I cut my hair as short as it could go without hauling out the electric razor. At times, the illusion was comforting: the absence of hair would protect me from catcalls and unwanted advances.When I was nineteen, I tried bleaching my hair a Marilyn Monroe peroxide blonde. Without having access to a colourist’s toner, my experiment resulted in a crop of shoulder-length orange hair, a look made all the more outrageous as I was growing out a perm at that time. Having no opportunity to correct this self-inflicted, unintentional (although most probably foreseeable) hair disaster before attending university the following day, I tried my best to rock that carrot top until I could haul ass to the salon and have the colour corrected. I still remember the look of shock on my history professor’s face when I walked through the door channelling Bette Davis from the movie, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?In full-blown eating disorder mode, I wore my hair chin length. I would sit across from my mother at the dining room table, feeling powerful, knowing there was nothing she could say or do to get me to eat.I grew my hair long, emulating Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, embracing the curls while learning to embrace myself.I was nervous about having my youngest offspring delivered via caesarean section. I dreaded the epidural, a procedure that had been an extremely prolonged and painful experience with my first two deliveries. The evening before my c-section, I visited my mother’s house; she’d be watching the grandkids while I delivered their sibling at the hospital. I sat on the floor, full-moon-belly- round, my anxiety lessening as I watched television and my mother French-braided my hair.Celebrating the Winter Solstice, our family does a gift exchange. Tradition dictates that presents should be a thrifted vintage find or an item fashioned by hand. One year my youngest gave her elder sister, who now lived and worked in a different city, a lock of hair fashioned into a piece of jewellery.I buzz-cut my hair after leaving an abusive relationship. The cutting of hair symbolised a shedding of the past, my hopes for so long Pretty Woman, hello woman warrior.I grew my hair long, long enough that I could have my hair cornrowed and braided with extensions down to my waist. My day was spent at Lola’s Hair Salon as three women tag-teamed and tugged on my roots and narrow sections of hair. For hours, they braided row upon row, weaving my natural hair with synthetic extensions, laying claim to an inheritance taken from me. I loved my Beyonce braids.Today, there are numerous websites advertising memorial keepsakes. By paying a fee and forwarding a lock of your deceased loved one’s hair, these businesses will encase the strands in resin, creating heart-shaped lockets worn close to a person’s heart.I learned my mother had died via a text message from one of my brothers. Woven strands. Split endings.I was the last person to leave my mother’s memorial service. I sat by her gravesite as people flocked to their cars on their way to a small reception held afterwards for immediate family. My mother had no friends. I sat on the lawn, wishing things could have been different between us. I had the urge to lift the trap door covered with Astroturf and grab the velvet bag that held my mother’s cremains. I wanted to take her with me, haul ass to my car, and drive out of the cemetery and onto the highway as fast as possible. I wanted to drive so fast that I could reverse time. I wanted to drive so fast that the past would collapse, and I could meet my mother before her life became hard, and she became harder, before she became a prickly impossibility to embrace. I wanted to reverse time as easily as it was to pop my car into reverse.I wanted the years to disappear until my mother was young and vibrant. We’d drive and drive, with windows rolled down – car stereo turned up, and the wind blowing in our hair as we travelled towards a horizon of infinite possibilities.
ROWAN McCANDLESS is the Black and biracial author of Persephone’s Children. A finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in nonfiction (2022), and cowinner of the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book (2022), her award-winning writing has appeared in various anthologies, as well as print and online journals. In 2020, she received gold and an honourable mention with the National Magazine Awards. In 2018 she was longlisted for the Journey Prize and won the Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. In 2022, she was a first reader for the CBC’s nonfiction contest and a judge for the Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. A jury member with the 2022 National Magazine Award for fiction and judge for the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick Nonfiction Award, Rowan is also the creative nonfiction editor of The Fiddlehead. Currently she is completing a short story collection and developing another memoir. Find her on Twitter @RowanMcCandless.