I have gotten up early my whole life, except for my teenaged years when I ran marathons in my sleep and didn’t wake up until I finished. As an early morning child, after finishing my sugar-laden cereal, I could explore drawers and closets without anyone asking, “What are you looking for?” This is the kind of unanswerable question that grownups ask curious children. Imagine walking through the woods admiring the trees, and as you bend down to look at a mushroom, someone asks you, “What are looking for?” The answer is nothing, everything, I’ll know when I find it, or maybe, you are asking the wrong question.
Most of life is hidden, and just as the birdwatcher needs time and patience to see the birds beneath the canopy of trees, so the child needs space to explore her world, including drawers and closets, the repositories of grownups’ secrets.
Looking through places in the house became a habit. In the mornings, I could go through most of the house, but not the bedrooms, at least not the only bedroom of real interest: my parents’ room. Entrance into that room required an invitation, and if occupied, a knock.
But parents are not always at home and big sisters have better things to do than follow little sister around. I must have been in second grade when I sneaked into my parents’ bedroom. In the small drawer next to where Mother kept her underwear, I found a picture of a tiger I had colored in school. I had pressed down on the crayons, so the vivid yellowish-brown eyes glowed from the orange and black-striped creature that stood among the green, yellow-green, light green, and turquoise leaves. Seeing it there secreted in her drawer was like coming face to face with a real tiger, one of my own creation, which now lived in this unexplored place. I felt happy that she would keep the colors that flowed out of me.
In that same drawer, I found a small envelope with her name written on it in textbook-perfect cursive letters. Inside were short, brown hair clippings, not more than a tablespoon worth. They were mine.
One day during craft time in first grade, my best friend, Donna, leaned over and said, “I can see your bangs growing.” Her words both thrilled me and alarmed me. Donna could see the tiny hairs, still alive at the roots, pushing into the world, threatening my eyes.
Cutting your own hair was forbidden in our house, but nothing had ever been said about having friends cut your hair.
Our teacher was busy helping L.D. wash his hands, which he had painstakingly covered with the paste he had developed a craving for. Donna held the blunt-nosed scissors and clipped quickly. In those days, teachers had eyes in the back of their head; at the second clip, she turned around and looked directly at Donna and me. Just like a game of Swing the Statue, we froze, Donna keeping the scissor hand suspended in the air, waiting for the teacher to come over and touch us to unfreeze us.
Instead, she said, “Come here girls.”
A moment earlier I had been enthralled at Donna’s powers of observation and her willingness to help me. The look on our teacher’s face and her tone of voice shook my confidence in my friend.
“Scissors are for cutting paper, Donna,” she said.
Donna started crying. Everyone in the room quieted down and looked at us. We were facing Mrs. Severe, so they could see only the teacher’s solemn face and the shaking shoulders of Donna as she cried. Mrs. Severe reached into her desk and pulled out a small envelope. She walked over to the small tables where we sat, gathered up my hair clippings, and put them inside the envelope.
“I’m going to call your mother tonight to make sure she gets these.” Then she went to the shelf where we kept our lunch boxes, opened the metal clasp, and put the envelope inside.
And she did call. Mother got out her haircutting scissors and evened out Donna’s work, leaving me only about an inch of bangs. Above my freckled nose loomed a white forehead, best hidden. The short hairs looked like the edge of a failed crew cut.
Mother had kept that envelope and the picture of my tiger. She was not very affectionate toward me, but here in this hidden, intimate place she kept parts of me. I opened her perfume jar and inhaled her sweet smell and loved her, secretly, like she loved me.