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My scalp was itching the other day, so I pulled the nit comb out of the bathroom drawer, slathered my hair in conditioner and had a good trawl. Nothing live, just sand from a recent beach volleyball game. Tant pis, I thought.
Yes, that’s right. Shocking, but true: I have a sneaking fondness for lice.
My view could not possibly be more unpopular. On the occasions when I’ve voiced my lack of disgust at the critters’ existence, you would have thought I’d expressed admiration for the Marquis de Sade or poachers of baby panda bears. But quite honestly, they (lice, not pandas) have done me, and my family, more good than ill.
In my new home, Toronto, I have learned that such a confession makes me a lone voice in the wilderness, a veritable pariah (I even considered submitting this essay anonymously). Across North America, it seems, there are whole companies dedicated to louse eradication, whose services cost hundreds of dollars. I know plenty of families who have hired them.
It’s not that in England, where we used to live, parents welcomed the news of lousy children. But they tended to be much more philosophical about the complaint, which was treated more on a par with having a sniffly cold than, say, leprosy. A child with lice would not be excluded from a birthday party, or school.
And really, think about it: What damage do lice cause? They itch, though not as much as mosquito bites. They don’t make you sick, they are not vectors for microbes that make you sick, and they don’t stink. If I had to choose a plague, lice would be it. I’d prefer them to a rhinovirus any day.
My children have largely outgrown the age of nits. Now galloping into the teen and preteen years, they don’t sit in huddled masses in the sandbox or cluster over dollhouses or Lego fortresses, their tousled tresses pressed against those of their friends. But in the preschool and primary years, when we lived in the temperate climes of Sussex in southern England, we experienced our fair share of infestations. There, the pests are endemic (or thriving, depending on your point of view).
My middle child in particular was a magnet for the beasties, the population in his scalp sometimes achieving numbers I dare not share in print. He was proud of his livestock. We decided that there was a chief louse, named Bob, who stuck around like a faithful retainer, lying low, even when his mates had been evacuated. We counted on Bob’s loyalty (later, we got some actual pets).
Once, during an unusually lengthy spell of completely barren hair, Bob sent the child a postcard, evidently from the north of England, describing the glories of the Peak District. (Coincidentally, we had recently vacationed there ourselves …)
It was not that we ignored infestations: far from it. Our perversity is that we relished them. Taking the boy children to the barber, I might find myself called over for a quiet word: “He has a few nits. Just wanted to let you know.”
The haircut would continue, scissors cleansed afterward and clippings swept up and ejected, just as would happen with any customer. The boys each chose a lollipop from the jar and off we went. Or the girl child’s preschool teacher, an eagle-eyed American, would alert me to the need for a clear-out. (Eventually, I learned to notice them myself.) That night I would perch on the edge of the bathtub, combing through the children’s hair, one after the other.
And that is what I loved. Of course it was time-consuming, but I grew to cherish that enforced attentiveness to one child, the closeness, that bubble in space and time empty of television, computers, the written word, telephones, games, of cooking or laundry or the myriad other household chores.
For a brief period that child and I were at one with our primate heritage, ape grooming ape. We became absorbed in our task, combing, talking, sometimes counting the little bugs (the children could get competitive), and finally, rinsing. We said along with Robert Burns: “Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner/On some poor body.” We learned about the life cycle of the louse, about adaptation and natural selection, and knew that four days later we would need to repeat the procedure.
We never pursued every last nit or louse at a sitting; that was impossible and unnecessary and painful. We aimed for control, not eradication; at about the time patience ended, so did the operation. Over a period of a couple of weeks, with about three rounds of combings, their scalps were clear, for a while. In a few months, the cycle would repeat. And our chats, our jokes, our tallies, our funny songs would revive. Rinse and repeat.
I hasten to add that nit-combing was not the only time, or even the best of the times I spent with my children at those ages. We snuggled in bed, read stories, watched movies, picnicked at the beach, played in the park, went for walks on the Downs, drove in the car, rode on trains, sat on the sofa doing nothing in particular. We still do those things. But hunting for lice was a bracketed, focused, intensely one-on-one refreshment of the mother-child bond. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Leslie Carlin lives in Toronto.