I stared open-mouthed at my Peruvian mother-in-law Rosa Tapia de Villalobos. She couldn’t mean it. Once again, she had blindsided me with the kind of old wives’ tale people in Lima took in with their mother’s milk.
Rosa came every morning with fresh granadillas for my infant daughter, Rosalena, who shared the names of both her grandmothers. Rosa usually stayed a few minutes to chat and supervise the preparation of this gentle juice which I had learned was the Peruvian infant’s introduction to tropical fruit.
That day she had patted my daughter’s head lovingly as the juice level went steadily down in the bottle, but something about the way she was avoiding eye contact warned me that I, her American daughter-in-law, was in for another lesson in Peruvian child rearing. I was doing something wrong, or not doing something right, to my firstborn.
Shortly after her birth, I had been admonished to tie a red string around her tiny wrist to ward off el mal ojo, the Evil Eye, and to pin a small red bow to her sleeper for the same reason.
“The Evil Eye? What’s the Evil Eye?” I’d asked, as visions of medieval sorcerers came to mind. Rosa explained to me about nefarious individuals who cast evil spells on infants by looking at them, causing sickness and even death. The terms superstitious and uneducated had popped into my head, but I was learning to mask my skepticism.
“Of course, it’s just something people believe,” she said, carefully avoiding the word superstition. “But where’s the harm?”
So Rosalena wore the crimson protections while I took her for routine immunizations and followed the pediatrician’s instructions for her diet and hygiene. Curiously enough, I noticed that the doctor encouraged me to indulge the talismans.
“No, of course I don’t believe in it,” he said. “But where’s the harm?”
I gave it a month.
I was okay with that, but I refused to keep the windows closed at night to prevent el mal aire from entering the bedroom. Peruvians, I was learning, in addition to being terrified of cold beverages, were deathly afraid of breathing the night air. None of them would believe me when I mentioned that in the sorority house at IU, I slept in the Cold Dorm, without heat and with the windows wide open to the Indiana winter without ever getting sick.
“Fresh air is healthy,” I insisted.
“Maybe over there, in the States, (where people are crazy) but not here in Peru where everyone knows it’s bad for you,” they would say.
Still, in spite of my inexperience (but with the surreptitious help of Doctor Spock’s Baby and Child Care,) I was navigating this bi-cultural parenting thing and thought I was doing okay.
Until that day. I watched as Rosa stroked the scant wisps of golden baby hair, lifting them gingerly and drawing them out into the air with her fingertips. There was something curiously akin to distain on her face. I didn’t have long to wait to find out why.
“Pobrecita,” she began. “Poor little thing.”
I took a deep breath. I was still not used to Rosa’s prefacing every remark about her granddaughter this way.
“Why do you say that? Why do you feel so sorry her?” I once asked. “She’s tiny. She’s perfect. Why does she need our pity?”
Without removing her gaze from the button nose and rosebud mouth of her namesake, Rosa sighed.
“Just think how much suffering she’ll endure in her lifetime!”
The fatalism of that remark had left me speechless, and not only because I was leaning to keep my opinions to myself. I also knew that it was entirely possible that at some time in the future I would come to comprehend, if not to share, Rosa’s point of view. Just then, however, I didn’t get it, but something else was up.
"Just look at how thin her hair is, poor little thing.” Rosa regarded me accusingly. The desirability of thick hair had never occurred to me. Fingers and toes, regular facial features, and other normal body parts constituted my requirements for a physically complete baby. I just assumed she would have serviceable hair.
“She’s only eight months old,” I reminded her. “It’ll get thicker as it grows.”
“No, it won’t.” said Rosa, firmly. “It will stay like this, all listless and pitiful, unless…”
Unless what? I thought. My mind went to hair follicles, scalp tissue, genes…all things beyond my control. What did she expect me to do?
“Unless,” she continued triumphantly, “You shave her head!”
My jaw dropped. She went on, nodding sagely, sensing a weak spot in my armor.
“That’s right. Children’s heads need to be shaved so the hair will grow back nice and thick. Like pruning trees. Hair is the same way. You shave i t all off. It grows back thicker.” And then, the kicker: “That’s the way we do it here in Peru.” She crossed her arms.
I recalled my own baby pictures with that same kind of blonde hair that had turned darker and much thicker as I grew. I pictured my mother’s head of beautifully dense silver hair. Why did we have a problem? Then I remembered that I had never known my father with more than a thin ginger fringe around the back of his head.
“You shaved your children’s heads?” I asked. She nodded happily. “Just so the hair would grow in thick?” Big smile.
I shook my head. Her three children did, indeed, have lots of hair. But so did most Peruvians! All those Inca descendants had thick ropes of braids to their waists. And Spaniards, if you wanted to get anthropological, had had thick mats of dark (and possibly lice-infested) locks under those uncomfortable-looking Conquistador helmets. What’s the big deal?
“I’ll think about it,” I waffled.
Unconvinced, I confronted my husband –her son–about it later. In typical fashion, he ducked the issue.
“Where’s the harm? It’ll grow back. Either way. It’s up to you. I don’t care.” He turned back to the soccer game.
Left in the position of either opposing or appeasing my mother-in-law, I decided to do some impartial research. I consulted friends. All the Peruvian women had shaved their children’s heads, but none of the Americans had, even the ones married to Peruvians–and all their children had normal amounts of hair.
“How can you compare a child’s head to a tree?” My friend Margaret shook her own head in disgust.
Recalling my university science classes, I cast about for an equitable solution that would prove me right once and for all, and settle this ridiculous issue. At length, I came up with the Scientific Method.
Observation: Peruvians shave children’s heads so their hair will grow in thicker (a patently ridiculous assertion.)
Hypothesis: Shaving a child’s head will make the hair grow back thicker.
At that point, it became distressingly clear that I would have to shave only ONE SIDE of my child’s head to prove my point. If I had been worried that my beautiful baby would look funny bald, the thought of her half-shorn settled the matter. I caved.
After all, where’s the harm?
I lost the battle but avoided a war with my wonderful mother-in-law. Rosa and I reached an unspoken agreement about this. The other three grandchildren survived infancy without having their heads shaved, and they all grew luxuriant tresses, a point I may have mentioned in passing (at every possible opportunity) at family gatherings.
Years later, when they all graduated from high school in California, the only accolade my Peruvian-American off spring shared in their high school yearbooks was–wait for it–Best Hair.
I’ve been a part of the San Diego writing community for the past seventeen years. Excerpts of my memoir, Peru;My Other Country, A Love Story have been performed in the Annual Memoir Showcase, put on by the San Diego Memoir Writers Association and San Diego Writers, Ink. and published in two annual anthologies. Another excerpt appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman. I belong to San Diego Writers, Ink and have been a board member of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association.