Imagine you are at the supermarket with your son, who we shall call, Pierre.
You have just stopped to examine the kumquats or the kiwanos, when out of the corner of your eye you see a person gravitating toward you, a friendly smile on their face.
You can’t quite remove your gaze, but don’t want to stare either, and the stranger moves a little closer, and now has a vaguely-menacing arm outstretched with seemingly-endless fingers, and is heading straight for you.
You have a moment of hoping you know them, or that they know you, at least, or that you’re having a fever dream.
But, this is not a dream.
Now you watch the person directly, not quite knowing their mission purpose, and you quiver a little as they advance. You stiffen in a kind of fear, and they do a funny Carmen Miranda-like shimmy, then they’re suddenly within touching-distance, and you visibly grimace in anticipation.
And then, without warning or introduction, they reach out, spindly-fingered, still smiling, and touch your child’s hair.
As Britain stayed silent for a minute this week to honour the twelve months since the first lockdown was announced, I began thinking of anything that had come positively from a long year of not interacting closely with many people at all.
Certainly, it’s been one of the strangest and hardest times many of us will live through, in terms of social contact, but there are those for whom little or no social interaction was always the norm. And for others, social contact has continued via virtual means, which, while not providing anywhere near the same intimacy, at least you can’t smell them.
But I did suddenly recall one thing from my pre-pandemic days of doing totally crazy things like grocery shopping or going to a movie theatre, or standing in line at the bank or sitting down to drink coffee.
It’s very presumptive that people do that, I remembered, and I’m sure it comes from a kind place in their hearts, but when did strangers start believing it was acceptable to touch a person's hair, particularly my child’s? I wonder when they first thought it would be okay to lay their hands on any part of another person, in public, without asking first?
Who said, ‘Yes, go on, Florence, stick your fingers in the curls of that stranger, see how they feel.’
No-one said that, I’m fairly sure.
And yet, it seems common practice for many to reach out and fondle children’s hair, in much the same way as people feel comfortable touching a pregnant belly or a cast which is keeping your arm tightly in-place while your break heals from when you thumped the last person to touch your child's hair.
I do understand that golden ringlets are quite rare and that seeing young people with curls probably creates a feeling of happiness, releasing endorphins or something, though I have not actually studied this nor can prove it to be the case.
Obviously, I have compassion that many people feel the need to connect, and this may be one way of doing that in a way that feels, at least to them, somewhat safe. But it’s not really an excuse.
There isn’t any justification for plunging fingers into hair that is not on their own heads.
Fingers, by the way, that may have just engaged in the close inspection of a pig’s trotters, or day-old trout, or a ham-bone, or some cheese curd. Fingers that have probably touched a steering wheel, or a door handle, the money in a change purse, or any one of a plethora of other items that we now know, thanks to our Covid experience, we should be careful handling without sanitising our hands, after and before.
And yet, curly hair seemed on-limits to so many.
The touching was also, I recall, often accompanied by odd comments, which, again I suspect, were connection openers.
‘Where did you get your curls,’ was a recurring one, even though I’d be standing next to them and I have curly hair of my own.
Another was ‘I can see where you got your curls from’, which was at least a little more thoughtful, though still a little ridiculous, or at least obvious.
And astonishingly, ‘Are those curls natural?’
I can’t imagine this was anything but rhetorical, and that they didn’t really believe I spent hours every morning with hot curling irons making sure the children could go to Coop feeling safe in the knowledge that their hair was bouncing beautifully and shimmering like the water on Lac Leman.
As we tentatively remove ourselves from our lockdown era, and people seek connection somewhat desperately, I wonder if I will have to be even more vigilant of people attempting the hair connection, or whether being forced to weather a year of germaphobia, sickness, near-death and death, will change the behaviour toward my children’s curly hair.
I salute all who have come through this annus horribilis with such courage and stoicism, never imagining such an experience would ever come to them before they ‘shufflel'd off this mortall coile’.
But I do so with a hand that will remain comfortably distant from anyone’s hair, and I would encourage others to use words as a conversation-starter, and resist the temptation to engage in moments of hirsute pleasure through the astral connection they make with my child’s, or any child's, follicles.
photo by cottonbro