I was biking on the trail that curves around Tarrytown Lakes when I saw a little girl in the distance.
She was on a pink bike with training wheels, tassels wispy in the breeze. Her mom stood next to her, steadying the bike, encouraging her to go. As I passed, the little girl looked up at me, nodded, and extended her arm with her palm open.
Let me rephrase that.
She nodded with confidence, a knowing code, an expression that said, “Hey, Bike Sister. I got this,” and her open palm was a clear invitation for me to tag her as I passed.
Yes, this really happened.
The little girl’s mom giggled, delighted and surprised that her daughter had engaged a stranger so playfully.
Years ago, when I lived in Tampa, I had a similar, joyful biking exchange with a little boy.
I was riding on the right, hugging the sea wall on Bayshore Boulevard, and he was about to pass me on the left, or I thought he wanted to pass. Instead, he biked parallel and threw me a mischievous grin. Simultaneously, we shouted, “One, two, three…GO!” And we raced along Bayshore, laughing the entire time, yelling things like, “Never say die!” and “Winner takes all!”
I don’t know exactly what makes little kids feel comfortable with me, what makes them know I’m goofy and willing to play, but my guess is it’s my braids.
In the 1970’s, when I was a little girl, I idolized Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder on “Little House on the Prairie.” If she wore her hair in this style, then so would I. Later, it was Farrah Faucet on “Charlie’s Angels,” and I spent hours with the blow dryer and curling iron aspiring to achieve her feathered look. By the 1980’s, during my high school and early college years, my hair was down my back, I knew all the lyrics to every song from the musical “Hair,” and I dated guys who loved their hair too.
As I’ve aged with my long hair, more children have reacted…
One of the brightest muses of my life, my niece, Hannah, looked at me when she was about 3 or 4 and asked, “Are you old or new?”
I grinned and asked her back, “Which one do you think I am?”
She tilted her head, twisted her cute little lips, and said,“Well, you’re big, so you could be old, but you’re funny, so you could be new.”
I told her she was right, I was both.
Another time I was with my friend, Melissa. We were walking home from our favorite, neighborhood diner when I saw a boy kicking around a soccer ball. Playfully, I ran up to him and yelled, “Hey! Toss it here!”
He looked at me horrified, clutched his soccer ball to his chest, and ran back into his house. I felt deflated, but Melissa explained, “Michelle, you look like a giant girl who wants to take away his toy. What did you think he would do?”
Adults have reacted to my hair too. My ESL students have consistently loved my trenzas. Perhaps because long hair is part of many of cultures, and braids are a popular style, my plaits comfort them, giving them something they can relate to and talk about in English.
Hair is a personal thing, obviously. The love of my life had long hair, but he shaved his head in his early twenties for his own reasons. I’ve only had the urge to cut my hair two times in my life-once when I was 10, I wore it short and feathered, and once when I was 25, when I had a loose, layered bob. Both styles were fine, but neither really felt totally like me.
I still have moments when I think I need to look more tailored, that shorter hair might be more appropriate for my age, but lately, I’ve noticed a lot more older women flaunting their long, gray hair, and Emmylou Harris rocks it best. She’s my current hair idol, so maybe I’ll layer my locks like hers. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just keep my braids, stay the gentle witch that I am, and hope for more fairy tale encounters on the trail.