The Day My Mother Lost Her Looks by Jenelle Boucher

*with Featured Art: “Esperanza” By Fierce Sonia

My mom lost her looks in a Shreveport hair salon in 1990. I was thirteen; she was forty.

She’d been gorgeous—to me at least—with a round face, plump lips, crystal eyes, and long brown hair that stretched scrunchies to their limits, though by this time white hairs had sprouted from her temples and her chin was on a slow but inevitable slide into her neck.

The stylist—a leather-clad man who looked more like a musician than anyone who’d ever cut my hair—recounted a ribald story over the roar of hairdryers, as my mom’s dark tresses wafted to the floor. She laughed, oblivious to the violence being done to her. But I saw. Catching her attention in the mirror, I shook my head in warning, which she ignored.

Thirty minutes later, her hair formed a blonde-streaked bulb, gelled spikes creeping into her face like stalactites. I shuffled behind her to the counter, humiliated, trying not to cry as she wrote a check.

“You look great!” The receptionist smiled.

“Thanks, I love it.”

Surely the niceties had gone too far. Or was my mom willfully unaware? Once she realized the severity of the situation, she’d be more upset than I was. How could I break it to her? I waited until we were seated in her Geo Metro. As soon as both doors closed, I sobbed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your hair! It looks bad.” There, I’d said it. She needed to know. Now we could strategize ways to hide her head. Maybe hats, scarves. She’d know best.

Instead, she laughed, a condescending chuckle probably meant to sound more confident than it really was—not unlike this failed attempt at a modern hairdo. “I like it.”

“Have you seen it? Look from the side!” I turned the rearview mirror toward her.

“Stop! This is the haircut I wanted. This is how women wear their hair these days. Women who live in cities, not podunk little towns.”

I averted my eyes, knowing but not saying that those women had stronger chins.

At the K-12 school I attended—where my mom worked—the fallout was immediate.

“Your mama’s done ruined herself.”

I knelt to adjust the roll in my stone-washed jeans. The boy was handsome and funny, wild in the way good-looking teenagers always were. Around kids like him, I bumbled, so busy watching myself I could only respond in slow motion.

“Don’t do anything like that to your hair,” he said. “Okay, Stick?”

Stick. I hated the name. The past two years I’d grown six inches, until I looked like I’d been assembled with too many parts. Nothing fit together the way it was supposed to. Until then in my horrific puberty, I’d at least had my mother’s looks as a silent promise that one day I’d be released from my transitional hell. I’d shed my awkwardness like old skin and emerge lovely like her. Now that promise had been broken.

My mom and I lived with my grandma. Just the three of us. No siblings, no cousins, no aunts or uncles. Everyone I knew was one of our ages: adolescent, middle-aged, or elderly. No in-between. Thus, at thirteen, I was certain I’d soon be in midlife. From there, it’d be a quick bounce to old age, like a skipping stone toward death. Every day I stared in the mirror, checking the profile of my chin, horrified by the lines on my neck.

It didn’t help that people often confused the three of us. There was never an outing to Wal-Mart when a shopper didn’t approach me, yelling, “Rachel!” I answered to my mother’s name as easily as to my own, so I’d turn and say hello. The speaker, if she noticed her mistake, would stutter in confusion, as though feeling the weight of the years. “You’re Rachel’s daughter. Sorry.” There was no need to apologize. My mom also responded to my grandmother’s name. We were used to it. I only pitied the other party. How shocking it must be to turn down the cosmetics aisle and find yourself face-to-face with an old friend still in the bloom of youth—gangly as she might be.

My mother’s appearance continued to morph in odd and unpredictable ways. Her hair grew into a droopy perm. She wore flowy dresses, beaded jewelry, dangly earrings, and oversized bracelets. Gone was the sweet-faced gifted-and-talented teacher. In her place was some Woodstock attendee, twenty years too late, jangling as she paraded her over-tanned body down the halls.

Even more disconcerting, my mother was more popular than I was. As the yearbook sponsor, she recruited anyone she suspected of promise. During those long school periods, everyone talked—in front of my mother and to her—making her privy to the secret lives, ambitions, romances, and family dramas of her students. Seniors dropped by our house unannounced for advice. She drove basketball players to the movies—for some, the first time they’d ever been in a theater. She helped students with their college applications, even drove them to tour universities. To them, she was a mythical hero, an adult who actually cared, oblivious to poverty and race.

I entered her classroom one afternoon to find a trio of popular girls dancing on the table like a coven of drunk witches. They’d just finished a lesson on Buddhism, which overflowed into a general discussion of religion and life. They laughed, babbling to my mother and to each other, their bodies leaking exuberance. When the final bell rang, they jumped down, yelling goodbyes as they ran into the corridor.

“What are they so happy about?” I mumbled.

“Stacy’s going to boarding school. She’s getting out of this town.” My mother gazed out the window at the buses below, as the footsteps in the hall slowly subsided. “I wish I could.”

She was quiet for a moment. “The teachers got a retirement gift for Ms. Lewis today. An Aunt Jemima lawn ornament. I was the only one who wouldn’t sign off on it.” She shook her permed head. “Even Ms. Adams signed her name. But how must that have made her feel?”

“Maybe it’s not as bad as you think.”

“Before I turned forty, I would have signed it just to get along. But I won’t live the rest of my life doing the wrong things just to get other people’s approval.”

It would be six more years before she died of pneumonia—died because she lived too far from a doctor. The last time I saw my mom was over the holidays, my junior year of college.

“Your mother’s beautiful,” my boyfriend said when we returned from dinner.

It was true. She’d settled into a distinguished age, losing ten pounds and regaining a bit of her lost chin. Her straight, shoulder-length hair framed her features in a pleasing way. Maybe we’d both finished our awkward transitions and adjusted to new stages of life.

Twelve days later, when the mortician said her neck was too swollen to look like her photo, I was furious. “That picture’s only two months old!”

“It’s okay.” My mom’s friend patted my shoulder. “We’ll tie a scarf around her. She’ll look pretty. Don’t worry.”

Then we put her into the ground.

Her forty-seven-year-old body would never parade through the house naked again. She’d never experiment with a new hairstyle or buy another piece of clothing. She’d applied her last lipstick, snapped on her last bracelet, fretted for the last time over the fat content of my grandmother’s cooking. And I would never see her again, never know how the story of her face was meant to end.

Now I’m her age. I made it, though not as fast as I thought. When I look at old pictures, my mom’s hair doesn’t look so bad. It was nice. It made her eyes pop. If I could, I’d explain to my teenage self that age brings confidence. But I know she wouldn’t believe me.

My mother got stuck in a town, a job, a life she didn’t want. She had every tool to get out. Yet she stayed, caring for my grandmother and me and launching her students to better starts than she ever had. They message me sometimes. “I miss her terribly,” the captain of that basketball team wrote at 1am, on the morning that would have been her seventy-second birthday.

He still remembers.

The truth is, there’s more than one way to be stuck. My mom felt trapped. But, in another way, she freed herself. Those last seven years, she decided who to be, no longer limited by the boundaries of other people’s expectations. That haircut was the starting gunshot of a new life, one she was just beginning to live.

And, like her, it was beautiful.


Jenelle Boucher is a science-fiction/fantasy author and a producer of narrative games. Her writing has been published in TulipTree Review and Gumbo Magazine, and her debut novel, Vita Eterna, placed top-five in The Gutsy Great Novelist Page One Prize. You can find her online at

Fierce Sonia is a mixed media artist. She builds a substrate with acrylic paint and collage. A narrative is constructed by the tension between the lush layers moving to dreamy feminine  mindscapes with a brighter palette. If you listen closely her work has a soundtrack, a rhythm, a pulse that will give you a magic carpet ride to a fairytale that restates your own heartbeat. She has a public studio at Torpedo Factory: 105 North Union Street, studio 5 Alexandria, VA 22303

Go ahead and Leave Feedback about this essay for a reply from the author.

Memoir Magazine