With a gray knit shawl thrown over her left shoulder and a white burp-bib draped over her right, Maureen Emerson is the picture of raw, new-mama grace. Her brown leather boots are propped up on the silver bar of the hair-washing chair where she sits. Baby Lucius nurses sleepily. This is the first time she has made the hour-and-a-half-long trip from her home in Livermore Falls to Head Games Salon in Portland since Lucius was born three months ago. For 10 years she has served as a holistic aesthetician at the well-known salon on Free Street.
Maureen can’t remember a time when her hair didn’t have a life of its own. When she was young it was a helix of dark brown coils that sprang spiritedly from her head and inspired the frequent question: How did you get your perm so tight? She didn’t always know how to explain that it wasn’t a perm at all but a striking combination of ethnicity and biology. A physical trait that signaled—in an inevitable and sometimes disquieting way—that Maureen was different.
When she was 2 years old, Maureen immigrated from Umuahia, Nigeria, with her mom, dad and little brother to North Conway Village, New Hampshire. “It was a really interesting experience, growing up in a mostly white town,” Maureen reflects. “There I was, the dark-skinned girl with really curly hair.” It was this sense of quiet otherness that would shape Maureen’s bravado and eventually call her to practice—in curious tandem—hair styling, healing and advocacy.
It goes back to those exchanges she had with people about her hair. All that intrusive curiosity cultivated a prickly awareness of her body. Sometimes she felt so…conspicuous. But her most vital influence—and one that offered levity—was the hair-care ritual she shared with her mother growing up. Their relationship was raucous at times. They suffered clashes both generational and cultural, and their routine hair collaboration helped cut the tension. “I didn’t ever feel accepted,” Maureen says quietly. “I didn’t know how to look or how to dress myself.” But mother and daughter shared a crucial bond. The ritual of hair care was a bridge between them.
Maureen smiles and straightens her shoulders, mimicking the proud matriarchal stature of her mother: “She’d go every weekend to get her hair done … because, you know, that’s what a lady does.” They spent countless hours together straightening Maureen’s decidedly willful hair. These sessions were a spiritual salve (despite, you know, the scalp burns). It became clear that such ceremonies were nothing short of sacred. “That’s why I love doing hair,” she says, eyes alight. “I love touching and listening to people. I advocate for women to deeply care for themselves.”
When Maureen was 21, she moved to Portland to open a second location of Adamma’s African Imports, the store her mother owned and operated in North Conway. “I jumped at the opportunity to be a co-business owner,” she says laughing. “My mom wasn’t around. I had that sexy freedom.”
But the business failed to thrive and Maureen was forced to consider what she wanted. Then, serendipity. When she was 24, she met Alanna York, the owner of Head Games Salon. “We bonded right away—over curly hair!” Alanna offered her an apprenticeship at the salon and, without reservation, Maureen said yes.
It was during this time that Maureen stopped straightening and dyeing her hair. “I realized…I have these cute springy curls…this is my hair! It was the first time in my life that I didn’t mess with it.” Armed with fresh vigor, she studied with and became a master Reiki practitioner as well as a hypnotherapist. Every day on the job, these skills translated. People share their rawest secrets and delights to the person who does their hair. “I can sit with them in their dark place,” she muses, “…but I can also go into their light.”
And then there’s this: Only a few short weeks ago, Maureen made the exhilarating decision to open her own salon. Livermore Falls (where she lives and farms off the grid with her husband and two sons) will soon boast Maureen Emerson, Professional Hair*Skin*Soul. Within those walls she will offer sublime hairstyling and body-care services. Certainly there will be no shortage of grace and refuge.
“It is a great opportunity,” Maureen says, beaming. “It has brought me into my community. It goes back to being part of a village. Our royal robe is our flesh. That is not vanity. That is the divine.”
Alicia Fisher is a poet, artist and freelance writer. She lives in Saco with her husband and two children (a.k.a. her favorite people).