I found my first gray hair a few weeks ago. My hairstylist calls them “quitters”. I have to admit, I was taken aback. My hair is light brown, so if I had any gray hairs up until now they’ve hidden themselves pretty well for the most part. They blend in. But not this one. It was definitely a quitter. Long, scraggly, most definitely gray. Sticking out at a jaunty angle screaming, “Hello! Here I am!” Winding its way crazily out of my scalp like a crooked branch on a gnarled oak. I was merciless. I yanked it.
I’d been expecting one of these things to make an appearance for quite a while now. A lot of my friends in their 30’s are already dying away those grays, and my mother started her chestnut brown “highlights” around 35, keeping the rest of her hair ebony dark. But I’ve been pretty lucky – of course until now.
Last month I had a party for my father’s 70th, inviting everyone in the family. I hadn’t seen my cousin in a few years – she’s only one year behind me. I was startled to see her blond hair graying at the temples. But after the party I looked in the mirror and, holy crap, mine is graying too. I had just never noticed. She’s the mother of two infants, and already with gray hair. My favorite professor had her first child at 41 carrying a long mane of flowing gray hair. I’m not sure how I feel about the whole thing. Sad? Resigned? Thrilled? I guess I’m not as shocked or as troubled as some would be. It just all seems a right of passage. Are these hairs really quitters? Or maybe just hair we’ve earned?
My style icon is Anne Bancroft and truly, my first thought at finding my first quitter was, “Cool, now I can have a chic gray bob like Miss Anne.” More American Quilt though, less The Graduate. Well, okay, Quilt hair with Graduate clothes. Envisioning myself swinging a bob around like Miss Anne made me think of my mother. As I’ve said, my mother’s battle with hair was constant. She was unyielding in her efforts to stay young and brunette. Grays were yanked, and what couldn’t be yanked was highlighted with chestnut brown Nice ‘n Easy. For most of my teen years she wore her hair in fuzzy curls – a frizzy fuzzy halo that encircled her head like a soft bird’s nest. Poodle hair. A nest she always complained about. “I should get a bob,” she’d say to herself while her daughters nodded emphatically, willing her to cut off the fro. Puh-LEEZ get rid of the perm we’d wish. She never did though, preferring to put tortoiseshell combs in the nest to keep it tidy and getting it re-permed every 6-8 weeks like clockwork. When I bobbed my own hair recently I was struck by the irony. I gave the bob my mother always wanted to myself. The nest hadn’t gotten me thank goodness. I had given in to my instinct and bobbed my hair. I could feel Momma nodding in approval – glad that at least ONE of us had the guts to do it.
When I was a child, my mother had hair that traveled down past her knees. Crystal Gayle hair that my dad adored. We’d sit in her lap and play with it like it belonged to Rapunzel. Our hair was long too – so long that when the three of us FINALLY decided to cut it in 1978, they alerted the media. Literally. I still have the faded newspaper clipping of the three of us sitting in barber chairs down at the local Supercuts, getting used to our sausage rolls. Yep. All three of us cut over 76 inches of hair, and all three of us ended up with late 1970’s Jaclyn Smith/Farrah Fawcett sausage roll hair. The local news covered it as one of their 6:26pm-just-short-of-the-national-news-local-curiosity stories. It was a sight to see. I was 11, my sister 9, and my mother 37.
I always credited Mom cutting her hair as a symbolic end to my childhood, because at that point everything went to hell. I became a teenager, Mom and Dad started yelling a lot more, and Mom started spending more time outside the home – training for marathons, spending late hours with friends, not doing things with us. I know now she was tired of the “mother” role and was finding herself. I don’t blame her for that, and I forgave her long ago. Now, I can understand and even applaud it. Cutting off all her hair was a clear break from the past. It clearly was for me an ending, but for her a new beginning.
Up to that point, her whole life had been controlled by her father, then by her husband, then by her children. Growing all that hair was the one thing she could contain, the one thing she could control. Cutting it was another way of taking control of her life. As I said my father loved her long hair, so when she cut it, it was a symbolic gesture to him to go fuck himself. That she was tired of his verbal abuse. She was growing a spine. She was finally going to live her own life for better or worse. What came later ended up being worse, unfortunately, but I think for her the hair cutting signaled a hopeful change.
A few weeks ago, my cousin was down for a visit. To walk down memory lane by going through some of Mom’s old stuff. She hoped to find some memories of her own mother to share with her when she got back home. As sisters, my mother and aunt had been very close. There we sat with Mom’s entire life reduced down to what could be contained within two large Rubbermaid tubs. The stuff Momma kept would keep an archaeologist busy for years. Old matchbooks from vacations taken in 1966. An actual piece of frosting from her wedding cake, crusted over, looking like gravel. The entire logbook and “How-To” manual from the time she was an electrolysis technician in New York. Ephemera so perfectly preserved, they would be great props for the show Mad Men. Years worth of love letters, some of them from my father, others from Arturo Lopez, a one-time New York Yankee. Christmas cards, grade school report cards, and newspaper clippings. And the hair.
Under a layer of tissue, there it lay. Our hair. All 76 inches of our hair. My sister’s, my own, and hers. A long, dark tail of my mother’s hair. I let out a little yelp, dropped the tissue, and found I couldn’t go on. I felt sick. Why had she kept this? I vaguely remember her saying she had, and even chuckling about it. But finding it now, after so many years, after all her troubles, her accident, then watching her age before my eyes, watching her sicken with cancer, then watching her die. This was morbid. This was her hair from when she was 37 years old. Younger than I am now. Still dark, black, shiny, healthy. Unencumbered by sickness or the mental burdens she acquired in her forties. This was pre-Poodle hair.
From that point on, the tone of the weekend completely changed. Our reminiscing got weird. We started referring to THE HAIR every so often, then laugh nervously, and shiver. “So, should we sit and stroke THE HAIR?” I’d say, meaning, “Do you want to reminisce some more?” Then we’d laugh uncomfortable laughs and not look at each other. We didn’t dig through the tubs so eagerly anymore, afraid of what we might find. So frikkin’ creepy. I kept forcing myself to laugh so I wouldn’t cry, or worse, run screaming from the building until the paddy wagon picked me up.
So, here’s the question. What do I DO with the damn thing? Does Locks of Love take 30-year-old hair? Do I just leave it for the next generation? Let them take care of it? Is it bad juju to have your dead mother’s hair in the house? It feels wrong to bury it. It feels even more wrong to burn it. Do I leave it in the woods and hope some bird builds a nest with it? Hey, I could CLONE her if I wanted, right? What would you do? I don’t want it in our house, and yet, it feels wrong to get rid of it. I picture myself as a crazy old woman, sitting, crying, saying, “I miss my moooootttthhhherrrrrr,” all the while caressing THE HAIR like some twisted version of Norman Bates.
I could give my sister’s hair to her, “Here sis, here’s your hair from when you were NINE.” Yeah, right. I could somehow figure out what to do with my mother’s, but even more strange, what do I do with my own? Hold onto it in case I get cancer and chemo and need a wig made? The color is wrong anyway – it’s the virginal, unencumbered, never before been permed or dyed auburn tresses of an 11-year-old who still held high opinons of her parents and her world. A different person than me. A child. Not me at all. Part of me I guess, but someone I’ve long passed by.
These hairs are most definitely quitters. What do I do with them? How do I cut them from my life in a way that honors who they came from?