Etta has brown hair. Amos and Piper are blonde. On Sunday night at 8:17, that meant that the egg sacs showed up in Etta’s hair best--because they’re sort of sesame-seed colored, and the full grown bugs showed up in Amos and Piper’s hair best, because they’re brown--like roaming bits of Uncle Ben’s rice (whole grain style).
A better mom would have picked up on all the itching long ago. But it was disguised as yet another symptom of fall’s dry air: chapped lips, post-bath lotion sessions, staticy fly-away hair, dry nose-insides... And I'm always looking for reasons NOT to call the doctor--to the point where I hardly even track my children’s symptoms at all. Admirably carefree parenting? Laziness? Forgetfulness? The jury’s still out.
Several times over the last few weeks, as I’ve scratched myself vigorously behind the ear Golden-Retriever-like because it feels so good to scratch (Question: Why does a dog use its hind leg to scratch behind his ear? Answer: Because he can!), I’ve wondered why my son was scratching so much. Dandruff maybe? I’d think, checking him out in the rearview mirror. But then I’d forget to look closely once we’d scrambled out of the car and moved on to the next thing. My toddler’s been scratching lots too, but on her it just looks adorable--like whenever she takes a break from being a belligerent troll to do some regular human thing like yawn. And my other daughter had been complaining to Joe about being itchy--but none of this information was ever synthesized because I’m their mom, and that’s not something I do.
Until Sunday night’s post-bathtime comb down (sounds like a ritual but hardly ever happens) when I found myself parting Amos’s hair to check for dandruff (hooray I remembered!) and found the first brown bug.
Joe confirmed that it was a living moving creature--and within three minutes we’d found seven more. A movie-montage of each one of us scratching--something like the Brady Bunch grid superimposed with the pages of the calendar flipping by--snapped into focus in my mind.
I flew to the phone and called my friend Roma who’d been through lice once before and vowed she’d shave them all bald if it ever happened again. I misdialed her three times--got knee deep into my own ‘we’re on the other line’ voice mail message before realizing I was listening to me, called my mom in Ohio because her number has a seven in it too, and then got through. It took Roma several minutes of fumbling around but she finally landed on the holy grail--the business card of a professional nit-picker. A woman Roma didn’t know to use during her own episode, but whose information she saved just in case.
An hour later we were in Abigail’s kitchen. Me and the older two. The baby slept through the entire discovery and was home further contaminating the pillowcases.
“We’re going to see a real Hasidic person?” Amos asked in the car on the way over. “Wait til I tel Nick!” Amos and Nick invented a game last year when the drive to their afterschool movement class took them through Williamsburg. They’d award points to anyone dressed ‘normally.’ Usually Puerto Ricans would win. This wasn’t exactly the open-minded city kid I’d hoped to raise here in Brooklyn, but it was hard to explain much about Hasidic Jews without getting into a muddle that ended up seeming sort of laughable--especially to an eight year old boy newly sensitive to the world of appearance.
“Why do they think God wants them to wear that hat?”
“What kind of God would want them to wear those clothes in the summer?”
“Maybe their God doesn’t like them?”
And so they’d give ten points to a gangbanger with a Bloods bandana, and deduct points from the little girls in the gray plaid dresses and ponytails.
“Yes we’re going to a real Hasidic person’s house,” I answered in a tone that made like it was the coolest opportunity ever. I told them they had to be on their best behavior, and asked them to look for three surprising things. We’d compare notes in the car on the way home.
We were ushered into a kitchen in the middle of Abigail’s home. A mother and her three kids were mid-inspection, and the father of that group looked at us warily. Abigail greeted us warmly, and apologized for the mess in her home.
She called her daughter in from another room. “Shoshi--come get started on this girl’s hair!”
Shoshi arrived looking pissed and whined “but Ma I have a paper due in the morning, I haven’t checked it yet.”
“Shoshi, just do it,”
“Shoshi--maybe this lady’s an English teacher. You--are you an English teacher?” she asked me.
“I was an English major” I smiled.
“Then Shoshi there it’s done--give the lady your paper and get started on the little girl’s hair.”
Shoshi left, returned with a two-page opinion piece about why physician’s assistants should get involved in politics (which boiled down to: because they should, that’s why), traded it for the Costco-sized bottle of Pantene conditioner I’d been told to bring ($9)--and got to work.
I combed through her paper and found some minor grammatical errors. She combed through my children and found more than a hundred adult lice.
When the other family left we were turned over to Abigail. That mom handed a baby to me that turned out to be Abigail’s youngest. I was in charge of feeding the baby for awhile. Applesauce, I think. At one point I looked over at Amos who was waiting his turn. A brown bug ambled slowly along his hairline. I pointed it out to Shoshi who responded by dowsing him with more Pantene. I wondered if I’ve been looking at my son at all in the past few weeks. What kind of mother am I?
Several of Abigail’s thirteen children poured into the kitchen towards the end of our two-hour visit. Two nine year old boys noisily pulled a chair up to the fridge and heaved a rusty toaster oven down from on top of it. They plugged it in and started to heat up a pizza. Seven year old Miriam plopped down at the kitchen table opposite my son. She asked her mom where the bugs come from, as she watched the wastebasket fill up with bug-riddled kleenex.
“Hashem puts them there,” her mother smiled. And then turned to me and said ‘That’s God.” Then she handed me a xeroxed packet about lice--diagrams, life-cycles, recommendations, etc. The packet didn’t mention God. Shoshi told me I should proofread it too.
While I was being combed my kids played a hand game called ‘homicide’ with Miriam. That a Hasidic girl knew how to play this simulated ammo/shooting game was Surprise Number One in the car on the way home.
That one of the boys stood in the kitchen complaining that he wanted a bongo set from Toys R Us was Surprise Number Two.
“Toys R Us isn’t a good place to buy bongoes,” Amos explained.
We got home at eleven and, under orders from Abigail, woke Piper up to comb her out. I tried to tell Abigail that I couldn’t imagine waking my toddler up and she--with five of her thirteen children still swirling around the kitchen fully clothed at 10:30--looked at me like ‘what’s the big deal about waking her up?’ and suddenly it didn’t seem so reckless after all.
We propped Piper up in front of an Elmo video. She teetered incredulously, delirious on my knees as I mimicked what I’d seen Abigail do with the comb I bought from her ($30), the conditioner, and the kleenex. $75 worth of combing--that’s the going rate for one clean head. I checked Joe too. We all had the bugs, the nits, the works. Priceless.
Joe had changed all the sheets and bagged the pillows while we were gone. At midnight we went to bed. Clean heads on clean pillows--and dreams filled with itchy buggy thoughts. When we were combing Piper out we spoke delightfully of silly bugs having a picnic on her head--”we don’t want those silly bugs on our head” we said. Silly, silly bugs. But it really was an overwhelming thought--the reality of all that wildlife going on in our hair. Eggs being laid. Worse, eggs hatching. Bugs living for ten days, dying. More bugs being born. And all that bloodsucking. To think that I’d had the audacity to move around my life for weeks with all of this going on up above was just crazy. Having road-rage, bickering with my husband, carrying on confident conversation at a book-party, giving advice... All the while with bug-city just inches from my eyes. Millimeters from my brain. Ick.
At one point while I slept, I dreamt that a bug was walking on my cheek. In real life my thumb jumped up reflexively, and I rolled it up against my forefinger. I felt a point of something between my fingers and turned the light on to see what it was. I had caught and killed a mosquito in my sleep. My fingers were bloody. I was grossed out, but totally impressed. A sweet spot of revenge.
If my friends and family were of the kill the messenger mentality, I’d have been murdered long ago. I love the ‘ta-da!’ moment of revealing bad news. And this was no different. My e-mails’ subject headings were all LICE! that week, and my phone calls begin with the question “ask me why I had my children in a Hasidic lady’s kitchen last night at 10:30?”
I worked hard through all of this to do the right thing and call everyone who had been exposed to us in the previous few weeks. I kept the kids out of school the next day, and called the school to report the lice. I called the Shakers, the Dunns, the Miller’s, the Keaver’s, the Angrims...the people we carpool with. The people who’d had the mini-Halloween block party, the family who took turns trying on Etta’s witch hat. I called everyone.
My mother says that the worse thing about lice is the stigma attached to it. I decided that we would be stigma-free. According to Abigail’s packet, lice prefer clean scalps. Hell, for once there was actual proof for the world that my children bathe frequently. Hallelujah. They are often disheveled and their clothes have stains and sometimes holes but look everyone! They’re so clean they have lice--and lots of ‘em! Check it out.
Abigail’s fee includes a follow-up the next day. And while part of me is determined to single-handedly de-stigmatize lice by example, I did draw the line at one thing. The Daily News reporter was scheduled to be at her house at 4:30, and I sort of made sure to go early enough that we wouldn’t be in the accompanying photo.
I also struggled with whether or not to call the Halloween store where we’d spent an hour the night before the discovery trying on hats. In the end I decided not to put them in the bad spot of knowing. Their only proper recourse would have been to bag half of their hat section for two weeks--which would have eaten into their profits significantly since Halloween was only fifteen days away. But if I were you I’d avoid all of the Willy Wonka-style hats in the costume store on 4th avenue in the East Village. Why take any chances?
One stroke of luck in the whole experience was that Vera our cleaning lady was scheduled to come to our house the next day anyway.
She was completely skeeved out--and fully believed that liciness was next to dirtiness. She implied that I should have been washing their hair every day. But her squeamishness meant that she way overbagged all of our stuff--rugs, dolls, pillows, blankets...Stuff that needed to be bagged for 2 weeks anyway and stuff that absolutely didn’t. She worked twice as long as she normally would have and I paid her extra ($80). In that case the stigma worked for us nicely.
And now, for the first time ever, our house has a cool minimalist feel. Wide blank floors--hard edges visible. All softness sealed away. I’m still unclear though as to whether we’re protecting our heads from the soft stuff or the soft stuff from our heads...
The kids were allowed to return to school the next day--after an all-clear from the mightily impressed school nurse. At Abigail’s insistence they wear their hair in ponytails, under bandanas and baseball caps. Not because they’re licey and gross but because they’re the fairest of them all.
When we bought our house eight years ago it was covered in cement; the ugliest house on the block. It wasn’t embarrassing (we hadn’t put the cement on it) but it was slightly apologetic feeling. Sorry we’re messing up your view...
Then when we redid the facade and became beautiful we were instantly annoyed by all the peeling paint and imperfection that surrounded us. Suddenly, we were living among slobs.
When I imagine the truth about my kids wandering around last week I picture them with halos of bugs, like Pigpen’s haze of debris. Trying on hats and wigs, lolling on the pillows at a local restaurant, holding hands with line partners at school. Now that they’re 100% Abigail certified I picture them out in the big world with perfect scalps amidst a sea of contaminated friends (never mind that my children may have been the ones doing the contaminating).
You think it’s gross that we had lice? I think it’s gross that your kids haven’t been combed by Abigail this week.
Things are almost back to normal here. Fifty-nine pounds of laundry ($59) were dropped off at the corner laundromat. Another forty pounds of pillows and quilts were done by me in person (hundreds of quarters but no time to do the math). Pillowcases from the Family Dollar store ($6 for 4) are draped over the headrests in our minivan.
And I’ve told the story about a hundred times. Because I’m proud of this, and slightly energized by it. Even though I don’t want it to ever happen again.
The moment is passing. Amos had an upset stomach the other night and as I helped him to the toilet my concerns shifted away from buggy types of things and towards internal tummy types of stuff. Like a switch just flipped and I couldn’t remember the buggy feeling any more.
And I’ve lost my ability to feel a mosquito land on my cheek in my sleep.
We had one more follow up with Abigail, whom I call Abby now. She was extra concerned about us because our case was so severe and she wanted to see us one more time. She had me write the check out directly to her children’s private school--Yeshiva Something-or-other--and winked at me and told me I could use it as a tax write-off. And then she took my kids into her house and sent me to the corner store with a dollar and 4 year old Victor because he was whining for chocolate. And as we left her living room for good a family was arriving from New Jersey. And Abby ushered us out past the arriving woman and her daughter and made a parting motion with her hands like Moses must have and said to us ‘you’re clean’ and said to the woman ‘and you’re not’--so we’d be sure not get our hair tangled with theirs on our way out.
I do comb my kids out regularly now. It’s a nice spot of time with each of them. And I find one bug every now and then. But Abby says it’s okay. Just change the kids’ sheets and move on, and don’t let it get so bad ever again. And I hope I won’t. But we all know what kind of mother I am.
7 years ago