I was up in my parents' room, Baby Bean in her christmas outfit finally, after days of wearing nothing but her pajamas. She's six now, getting longer but still so small next to kids her age. Her face has changed shape, gone from cute to astonishingly pretty.
I brushed her hair back from her face as she sat primly on my mother's vanity stool. She was busy messing with the three mirrors my mother keeps there now that she has trifocals.
"Whoa, I'm upside down," she said, leaning into the first and going silly on me.
"Get up closer until you're right side up," I said. She approached the mirror slowly, expecting a trick of some kind.
"There!" she said, her nose nearly touching the surface.
"Why does Gramma have three mirrors?" she asked.
"Because each one shows her a different distance. She sees in three distances."
She sat up again and told me she wanted her hair way up, "like this," she said, with a fist on the top of her head, "like a rock star."
I brushed and brushed her soft hair. It's brown with a red tint to it and lighter streaks. It would be impossible to replicate that color in a salon. As I brushed she moved her head a bit, leaning into the caress of the brush like a cat. I caught her eye in the mirror.
"Actually, I think," she said, "that with his outfit, maybe not the rock star hair."
"What do you want, peanut?"
"Umm... I dunno."
"Yeah, braids is good!"
"Okay, but you have to sit still for a while."
She sat up straight again and put her hands in her lap. I chattered to her about christmas, her brother, grandma's amazing tri-focal eyes. At some point I noticed she was staring at me again. I thought suddenly of this role reversal, the many times I sat here while my mother wrestled with my tangles and attempted french braids, later on when she helped me blow it dry and straighten it. I used to watch her face, the furrow in her forehead and the hairpins in her lips. She would talk around them as I asked her questions, a ponytail holder tight around her strong wrist.
"Aunt Jo, why is your hair brown and also red?" asked the Bean.
I smiled at her in the mirror as I completed the first braid. "Because I am cheap and also lazy," I said. This joke was not funny to her, so I gave her the real answer.
"Because I went to the salon and had it colored, like your mommy does." She nodded. "But it's been a while since I had it dyed. Now you can see my real color." She squinched up her nose. "Can you tell which one is my real color?" I asked.
"Ummmmmmm... the brown!" she said, hopping a little in her seat.
There was another answer I could have given her. I could have told her I don't see the point in spending money on myself these days. I could tell her I barely notice what I look like from day to day, only keeping to my strict patterns and rules about cleanliness and order. How do you ever tell a six year old girl that her Aunt Jo is so depressed that she can't imagine investing even that little bit in herself? It was insufferable to tell this child, the one my mother calls Jo accidentally, the one sitting just where I sat so many years ago, that I have curdled somehow and I don't know how to fix it, that I'm usually in the middle of a gesture to give up entirely.
I finished the second braid and wrapped a tiny clear ponytail holder around it.
"Okay, shake to see if it stays," I said. She shook her head fiercely from side to side, laughing. "Good. All done. Go show Grandma."
She skipped, actually skipped out of the room. I sat in front of the mirror and pulled my hair until my fingers hurt and the fierce need to cry melted away.