99 Problems

Published on April 28th, 2017 | by Shirley Salemy Meyer


Love Note to a Lice Comb

My young daughter sits in our attic bathroom—far from everyone else in the family—with a towel draped across her shoulders and her long blonde hair slick with thick conditioner. Mounds of laundry await me in the basement, and I will, for the umpteenth time, give my lecture to all three kids about not piling jackets on top of other jackets at school, and about keeping hair up in a ponytail instead of loose and free.

With conditioner to grease the path of the comb, I work through small sections of my daughter’s hair and snag all sorts of stuff. I peer through the magnifying glass. Has the comb captured an adult louse or a bit of fuzz the same brown color as our playroom rug? I have to scratch my head while I consider that question. Flecks of things float atop the buildup of conditioner on the comb. Are they nits, ripped from the hair shaft by the comb, or merely grains of sand from our sandbox? Separating the flotsam of an active childhood from a two-millimeter-long louse or an even tinier nit is tricky. But I put my trust in my tenacious comb. Its grooved teeth ensure that every particle, whether swarming or inanimate, is discovered and discarded.

I love that comb.

Rick & Brenda Beerhorst / Creative Commons License

Head lice infest up to twelve million kids each year. And lice are so hard to see that often the main symptom—an itchy scalp—is the (too-late) telltale sign, not the insects themselves. Lice don’t spread disease or cause death like certain mosquitoes and ticks, but they make us feel miserable nonetheless. We feel lousy. Yes—louse-y.

I have become a lice expert. Lice combs have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Ornate ones dating from the first and second centuries have been found in the Dead Sea area. A Russian tortoise shell lice comb is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The  Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington has a more modern one in its collections. Other methods exist for treating lice. But the medicated formulas contain insecticides that are also found in dog flea collars and termite-control sprays. Plus, you still have to comb them out. Even though federal regulators have approved these products, the notion of chemicals on my kids’ heads is troubling when I feed them organic vegetables, grass-fed beef, and free-range chicken. Combing for lice is as effective (some say more effective); it just takes more time.

Plus, I have discovered some unexpected rewards. My son’s hair is quite short, which means quick work for the lice comb and scant conversation. My daughters, though, have straight locks that stretch down their backs. Going through their hair with the comb takes nearly an hour. During that time, they’re my captives, unable to bristle and stomp off if the conversation turns to something they don’t want to discuss. But mostly I learn the mundane details of their workaday lives—details that often get lost in the hubbub of a busy household as the kids grow older. I hear about lunch-room politics and after-school gatherings and exotic school-break travel plans. They talk about intricately braided hairstyles and complain about the time it takes to grow out bangs. All the while I study their strands of hair.

“10 Plagues of Egypt, Gummy Bear style” Lilach Daniel / Creative Commons License

I’m transported back to that enchanted time of early motherhood. When my kids were infants, I cradled them in crook of my arm while nursing. I examined their distinct features and committed them to memory: the profile of their perfect noses, the length of their feathery lashes, the contours of their exquisite ears, the color of their wrinkly lips, a hue that reminded me of rosebuds when they first open in late spring. When I comb for lice, I recognize those once-familiar features, now fleshed out by the passage of years, blooming with wisdom and maturity.

Combing for lice is intimate and slow—and strangely therapeutic. It’s a detox for the head and for the heart. Now that my kids are long past the age of strollers and diapers and clinging-to-my-legs dependence, I get something so rare—a chance once again to touch their hair, cradle their heads, and really look at what has become of each them, now much more self-reliant, through my eyes as a more seasoned mother.

Time Traveling. Jocelyn Kinghorn / Creative Commons License

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About the Author

Shirley Salemy Meyer teaches part-time in the College Writing Program of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. She spent most of her career, however, on the staff of the Associated Press, The Des Moines Register, the Chicago Tribune, the Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.) and the Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, Mont.). Her features have appeared in publications across the country via The Associated Press as well as in the “Motherlode” and “The Local” blogs of The New York Times, Inside Jersey magazine of The Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), U.S. Catholic, and Mothers Always Write, among other publications. Her poetry has appeared in Wilderness House Literary Review. She earned a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College.

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