Sophie-Good-Heart was her nickname. She didn’t necessarily deserve it because it wasn’t bestowed upon her because of her Good-Heart per se. She earned the title because we all liked her, a lot, and she was easy to like. Some of our larger fights growing up were over who would get to sit next to Sophie in the car, at the table or on a carnival ride. Who would get paired up with her to dust and clean a room on Saturday? We weren’t the only ones who loved Sophie. All little babies clung to her. Uncles would sit her on their knee and refer to her as their favorite niece and she was always asked to spend the night at our cousins’ house. At school she was popular. Girls fought to be her friend, boys picked her to be on their kick ball team, and Sophie took the adoration in stride. She was never cocky or spoiled, but always understated and generous. But she did come to expect acceptance wherever she went.

Sophie was also a peacemaker in the family, ironing out every wrinkle or encouraging us all to ignore the wrinkles at least. The whole family, including Mom, could appreciate this quality.

What Mom loved about Sophie was her smile, which came from deep inside her. Like a virus, it had no cure and was infectious to the point of danger. How many times did she smile during a lecture and get us all in trouble for not taking our Mother seriously?

Mom was ruthless in her insistence that no other daughter had the smile of Sophie and was equally tyrannical about Emily’s hair. As she brushed it in the firelight, the bright flames would magnify the striking beauty—brilliant gold with flecks of the lightest blond. She remarked how rare it was for hair to have both this color and this thickness. Each single strand was as a thick as a wire and as sleek as an eel, vibrating a shine that put Pantene commercials to shame.

Yet even as she complimented, Mom fought with Emily’s hair in an exhausting, contradictory battle no one dared to question. Until me.

For all its beauty, Emily’s hair was unmanageable. Clips popped out because it was too thick. Braids would come undone because it was too sleek. Ponytails would fall because it was too heavy. Mom was convinced the solution was curlers. Curlers were the solution to all hair problems for Mom. The problem was the curls would not stay for all the same reasons nothing else stayed. Perms lasted through only a few washes before nature forced its way back.

This provided Mom a daily challenge. First, she’d saturate Emily’s hair with extra strength hair gel. Then, she’d curl the tiniest bits of hair into each curler. Off to bed Emily went suffering the discomfort all through the night… and all in vain. In the morning, Mom removed each curler, assisted each strand by twirling it around her finger, and gave it a healthy dose of extra strength hairspray. But before she got to the next one, the curl had gone limp.

I was about seven or eight when I asked, “What about my hair, isn’t it pretty?” I gave my Mom my best dimpled smile and bounced my hair, which took to curlers quite nicely.

She stopped sparring with Emily’s hair to give me a troubled, confused look. The room went silent for a split second. But I firmly waited for her reply.

I knew my hair wasn’t beautiful. Thin and wispy, it was the color of mud on a foggy day, stuck between blond and brown. But I wanted a compliment for my hair and I was going to get it.

“You have lovely dimples.” Mom bought herself some time with the compliment. “For every dimple you have, an angel kissed you before you were born.” Returning to Emily’s stubborn head, she added, “Your hair will get thick like Angela’s, or darker, like Tazneem’s. All my girls are pretty, but no one’s hair compares to Emily’s.”

I was pleased when I saw Tazneem smile in the mirror in a vain attempt to spy dimples. But I could not be satisfied with Mom’s response. I pushed my point. “Well, if Emily’s hair is so perfect, then why do you try to curl it all the time? My hair curls and hers doesn’t.”

My sisters’ movements froze, the only thing moving were their eyes growing wider. Mom’s face was blank as she stared at me, the hairspray poised for action. Seconds passed before she started to answer and a mist of spray saturated a should-be curl of Emily’s.

Before she could get her first word out, I interrupted, “Maybe my hair is better…”

My sisters gasped. Mom tossed the hairspray and the brush, which remained suspended in a tangled mess of Emily’s hair. Emily squealed in pain and I soon followed her lead when Mom grabbed me by the hair, nicely curled though it was, and dragged me out of the Big Room hissing at me, “How dare you compete with your own sister? How dare you?” She threw the door to our bedroom open and sent me flying toward the bed. Her fingers still glistened with hair gel and strands of gold. “There will be no rivalries between my girls. Is that clear?” Without awaiting an answer, she slammed the door.

Alone in the dark red glow of the room I shared with Patrick and Mom, I sat on the floor, my legs crossed, my hand rubbing my scalp. I pondered what the whole scene meant. There was the obvious lesson—the one Mom had spit in my face minutes before. I guessed it was a good lesson. There wasn’t really room for envy, jealousy or rivalry in our tight group.

I crawled into Patrick’s bed in the corner to stare at the airplanes dancing over the bed. Mom’s world of beauty was too limited for sharing. She needed to keep it organized and categorized. Just like Patrick was the only one who could play T-ball, Emily was the only one who could have the best hair, and Sophie was the only one who could have the brightest smile. As I curled up under the blankets with visions of zooming down a country road in the Model T pictured on the wall, I caught a quick glimpse of Emily in my mind’s eye. Her fingers had toyed with a long clump of hair and she looked as though her homerun hit was called a foul after she already ran the bases. Her expression was guilty as if I said what she always knew—her greatest trait of beauty was flawed.

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