A letter to my daughter about love, men and a wooden comb

Dear Helena,

You have an intuition that I hope to never discourage. Even at 4, you see people’s emotions and understand their relationships, and you have a knack for asking questions that make people squirm. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when you asked me about the small, handless wooden comb I keep in my medicine cabinet and use to untangle my hair after the shower. It is such a small thing, something I use nearly every day, and it has been so since before you were born. Asking about that comb might seem to someone else like asking about my brown leather shoulder bag or my black cast iron fry pan. But there is nothing special about those things that you see every day. You sensed there was something special about that comb. And there is.

See, a very long time ago when I was a young woman starting out in the world a man gave me that comb. He was also young, and very handsome and accomplished and on the one hand I was amazed that he loved me so much. But at that time I felt pretty amazing, too, so it all seemed to fit just right. He was one of a handful of men who I’ve loved and who loved me back. Each of those men came with many tears, just as each came with giant soaring love that turned me into who I was to become. Who I am.

That man was young, but he had an old soul (my big loves always do). He was from another part of the world, and our time was borrowed, and after a year together he had to leave. And so I followed him. But before that, we fell in love. And he was the first man who took me out to dinners with bottles of wine that he could not afford, and he was the first man who really made love to me, who took over my body in new ways that changed me. He cried for me, and when he’d hold me in his arms, I’d often break down myself for no reason at all, except for the reason that his love was breaking into a part of me I had not yet then known.

He was dark, and he was also sweet. And when he took out a small bag with the little comb he explained that it was for him to use to wash my hair in the shower. Even though that full memory rarely materializes, that tender notion passes through me each and every morning when I reach for the comb, or glimpse it tucked behind the yellow tin that holds my makeup. It is a fleeting reminder that there are brilliant and good men in the world who have loved me. When I feel alone or flawed I remember that someone once thought otherwise. And somehow that makes it so.

When I was growing up your Gramma Camille kept a pair of nail clippers on a hook in a kitchen cabinet. One side had an enamel plaque advertising Newport cigarettes. The whole family used those clippers, and no one ever mentioned how bizarre it was that they were never replaced in 25 years, or that they hung there despite the fact that my mother abhorred nothing more than smoking. But like you, I sensed there was something about those clippers, and so once – just once when I was a teenager—I asked her. The response was a dismissive mention of a man in Paris. My mother had been to Paris once, when she was a college student in the summertime. I imagine her loving him, and the sweetest heartbreak that must have been, and how there must be such a funny and lovely inside joke that led to the clippers. That is my own fictionalized version of events, because it was made clear that I was not invited to ask more.

The message my mother gave me about romance and dating was always one of practicality: marry someone nice, with a good job, and tall (because tall men do well in business). No messing around with the frivolity of passion – that will only lead to foolish decisions! And in the event you do succumb to feelings, be decent and don’t talk about it.

I am not sure what my bottom-line lesson about love and relationships is for you. I’m not sure for myself. But I want you to notice that comb, and I want you to ask. Ask why I keep that David Sedaris short story collection, even though I purge all other books I read. Then I will tell you about my college boyfriend who was so kind and decent, and the relationship that taught me to listen when my heart tells to seek out freedom, even when practicality says to stay. Ask about the girlish pink negligee stuffed into the back of a drawer, and I will tell you all about your dad, and how he helped me realize a life that is larger and more exciting than my dreams allowed. Ask me why I snap when you play with my black ear buds, and I will tell you about the boyfriend who gave me the lesson that love and sex and art are all important for their own sake – and that sake is perhaps higher than all else.

Ask me again about the comb, and I will tell you to collect love stories in your own life. I will tell you to expect tenderness and passion and big, complicated loves that will change you forever. And I will tell you to anticipate devastating, glorious heartbreak, too, when you wonder if you will ever, ever feel that way again. And then, out of the corner of your eye, you will subconsciously glance at what will be your own wooden comb, and you will know, Yes, yes, I will love once more.

All my love and more,


Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

11 thoughts on “A letter to my daughter about love, men and a wooden comb

  1. Hey there Emma — this is a truly beautiful piece. Helena is very lucky to have you as a mom (not that you need anyone to tell you that, but I just wanted to… Xo Kara

  2. dear Emma ,

  3. Beautifully written, Emma: spot on and timeless. Of course it’s for your daughter. We are women, and we harbor such keepsakes. And what a gift. Inspired by love, and about love: as a journey. An honest message, that doesn’t get much play. Thanks for the tender start to my day.

  4. So many tears reading this heartfelt piece. If only one of the older women in my life would have shared this type of wisdom with me … life might be very different for me right now. You’re daughter is so fortunate to have a mom who will share such important insights about intimacy with her.

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