I smile as I look at the three of us in the mirror of the salon – my grandmother, my mom, and I. Three generations of women sharing one age-old feminine pastime: hair styling. In the reflections, I notice that we don’t look like each other. My mom got her looks from my grandpa, and I got mine from my dad. Still, after twenty years of being loved by them, I have come to know their faces better than my own.
I continue thinking about them as the hairdresser snips at my locks. I wonder if they realize how similar they are. Both are contented women, women who could never be bitter or cold or cynical. Both have married men who were not only the love of their lives but also their best friends. Both are legendary in our family for their soft hearts. Grandma is generous to a fault – she would give away whatever cash she had in her wallet to anyone who seemed to need it more than she did; and my mom, a school principal, has had to frequently put down her work to accommodate everyone from student to teacher who needed a kind word or a hug. Their gentle presence soothes and comforts -– it’s who they are. But as I continue looking at them less with the eyes of a child and more with the growing awareness of a young woman, I realize that they are also incredibly strong.
Their lives haven’t been easy. Grandpa, a young minister then, and Grandma, a sixteen-year-old girl barely out of childhood, got married in the upheaval of the Japanese war. Being a pastor’s family in their case meant frequent relocation whenever Grandpa was assigned to another remote barrio for church planting. A minister’s salary wasn’t much, especially when it had to be stretched to provide for the needs of five children, so my mom worked as a household helper to put herself and her younger sister through college. All the things I am taking for granted in my own life – financial security, parent-supported education, modern conveniences, and more – are luxuries they have never enjoyed in their youth.
As I grow older, I find that I have a deep curiosity about these women who have shaped my life. I learn to ask the questions that uncover their hidden histories – those parts of their past that don’t come out in everyday conversations. Sometimes the answers surprise me. I didn’t know that Grandma once gave birth to a stillborn daughter, or that my mother’s first bra was a hand-me-down when she was already seventeen. Little by little, I discover their tragedies, their struggles, their regrets. I hear about their love stories, stories that make me strengthen my resolve to never settle for anything less than what they’ve had. Most of all, I found out about who they really are – multi-faceted women who have not always been mothers but have lived full lives that have created in them a certain gentle strength.
As the hairdresser puts the finishing touches on my new cut, I glance over at them once more. I know that they will never stop worrying about me, knowing that they have given me their rescuer complex, the inability to resist any call for help. They fear that I will be taken advantage of, that I will be disillusioned. But I am not afraid, because I know that they have not only given me their weakness, but also their strength. Someday, that strength will come into full bloom and will be passed on to my own daughters. I can only hope that when that time comes, my children will be as proud of me as I am proud of the two beautiful women who are sitting beside me now.