DRAWN BY HAIRS*
*The greatest events are often drawn by hairs: Events of great pith and moment are often brought about by causes of apparently no importance.
By Nancy Lou Canyon
I’ll never forget mother’s words, “We’re short haired people.” The first time she colored her hair she reminded us kids of a brunette version of June Cleaver. When she turned sixty, she feared her scalp may have absorbed enough toxic chemical to make her a candidate for brain cancer, so she let the color go off. Under the tint, her hair was white as snow. She hated it. She died at sixty-three from an unrelated disease.
My sister’s first husband had long coarse black hair. When he needed a trim she reached for the kitchen shears. One cut became particularly memorable. The top bunched straight up, the sides and back hung long. He wore a blue stocking cap for months waiting for grow out. Years later and remarried, she cut her new husband’s hair. When they came for a visit, he hung his head sheepishly. She has a way of humbling her men with her kitchen shears.
In the movie Shampoo, Warren Beatty as George, finds himself at a party with three women he’s been sleeping with. To save his hide he shifts the focus to Lester, the husband of one of the women.
“Do you wash your hair every day?”
“Isn’t that bad for it?” Lester asks.
“No. No. It’s good. It keeps the skin peeling. You got to keep it peeling otherwise the little follicles don’t have a chance to breathe. You know? That’s how you lose your hair. Remember the follicle never dies.”
In the early seventies, wigs were all the rage. Traveling wig shows set up in hotel rooms across America. At one such show, bright lights highlighted wigs pinned on faceless Styrofoam manikins. The proprietor pointed out a human hair wig and guaranteed it would make me look like Elizabeth Taylor. She said my features were perfectly balanced like Liz’s. I couldn’t afford the Liz look-alike wig so bought a cheap, synthetic black wig permanently styled in a smooth Pageboy. It had several drawbacks: I couldn’t hear the short order cook while waiting tables, it was too hot to wear during the summer, and it made me look like a slut.
I remember the proud way my father looked at me while I finished primping for my junior year semi-formal dance. I wore my curly brunette hair pinned up with a wiglet styled in a splash of curls fastened at the crown of my head. My hand-sewn dress fit perfectly; royal blue crepe with a deep scoop neck trimmed in light blue satin piping.
“You look beautiful,” he said, his gray eyes misting.
I smiled and sprayed Lily of the Valley Eau de Toilette on my pulse points.
“Someday you’ll be Miss America.”
Giggling, I blotted my lipstick.
“Take a good look at yourself.” He nodded to the mirror. “You will, mark my words.”
It was beauty day at the nursing home. One at a time, the patients were wheeled into the shower and shampooed while their scrawny and wrinkled bodies shivered in wheelchairs. They were dried and dressed in clean housedresses and waited in line for their turn with the beautician. Mother had the beautician use the same brush rollers and pink plastic pushpins she’d been setting her own hair with for the past twenty years. While the operator sectioned and rolled her baby fine hair, her stroke-altered face took on the countenance of a contented cow. Combed out and sprayed, her filmy white hair contrasted sharply with her black saucer-eyes and red lipstick, which she’d applied perfectly, no mirror. Her best days corresponded with beauty day; her hair was done and her face was on.
In 1967, my father surprised my sister and me with giant garment boxes. My sister opened hers first. From it she pulled a fingertip length, black and white dyed rabbit fur coat. It went perfectly with her pixie cut and skinny legs.
From my box I pulled a dress length, tan and white rabbit fur coat. I slipped on the cozy indulgence. Then I turned to the mirror and saw a polar bear. My short Beatlesque cut barely broke through the arctic surface of itchy fluff.
Father didn’t miss a beat. He offered me cash instead. With the money I up-dated my beauty supplies: hand-held blow dryer, electric curling iron, magnetic rollers, gold highlighting hair spray, artificial nails, polish in assorted colors and enough leftover cash for a trip to the beauty shop.
Sunny’s permanent wave had over-processed. Her hair was crispy, breaking, fried. Mad as a hornet, she was hot to sue the salon. Of course, she had barely enough money for rent and baby food, let alone legal fees. We decided to crop her damaged hair in my kitchen. Two photos documented the event; a large pile of blond clippings and Sunny’s quizzical daughter reaching for Mommy’s scrub-brush-do. I thought the cut worked well with her tall frame but as soon as her husband saw it he grabbed his car keys and headed out the door to find a long-haired chick to swing with that night. Sunny finally cheered up once she bought an expensive shoulder length blonde wig at the wig store. I had to agree with the proprietor, she looked like a goddess.
High school chicks crowded around the mirror in the girl’s can. One ratted platinum blonde hair into a dense bouffant do, another brushed flyaway ironed hair, another sprayed the heck out of her Dippity-do flip. Cigarette smoke and BO mixed with the smell of Aqua Net and perfume. A cheerleader adjusted her letter sweater, hiked up her pantyhose and looked down her nose at the fat girl with the frizzy hair standing next to her.
“I’d die before I’d be stuck with hair like yours.”
Suddenly, I remembered my dream; her star-quarterback boyfriend dancing with me, cheek to cheek. He tenderly holding the back of my stiff, overly sprayed hair.
“Leave her alone,” I said.
“Buzz off!” The cheerleader turned and slammed out the door.
The fat girl smiled shyly.
I retrieved a sample of Aqua Net from my purse and gave it to her.
“Tint not dye,” Mrs. Hendricks corrects us. “You dye rugs.”
Donna was a mortuary beautician. At night, in the basement of the Dodge Funeral Home, she did the stiff’s hair and makeup. “It’s creepy,” she said. “They look so real.” She twisted her fingers together and smiled weakly. I looked at her and tried to imagine working at night in a basement on dead people no less. Nervously, I realigned a spit curl beside my ear. “Hair keeps growing after you’re dead, you know,” she said. “I didn’t know that.” “Just for awhile, not forever.”
A fellow beauty school student complained that her legs were going numb. Since she was a whiner, she got the brush-off from the rest of the gang. As it turned out, she had contracted a form of polio and soon was checked into the hospital for an extended stay. After a visit, the head instructor wagged her finger at Susan and Carla and said, “You two go do her hair. She looks terrible. It’ll make her feel better.”
That very day the doctor noted on her chart, patient turned corner—on way to full recovery.
A fellow student gave me a manicure. I was five months pregnant and the talk of the school. She confided in me that she’d lost a baby. She said, even after the funeral she kept hearing her baby cry. It got so bad that she’d go to the nursery to pick the baby up. “I went a little crazy for awhile,” she said, pushing back my cuticle. “Now I’m fine. My advice to you is never forget any detail of your experience. You know–the flutters, the kicks and your milk coming in.” I took her advice and memorized every nuance of my pregnancy. Hard-belly contractions, acrobatics at one in the morning, the first bit of colostrum oozing form my nipples and hirsutism.
Not many years into our marriage my husband told me that he always thought he would marry a large breasted woman with long blonde hair. He even dreamed of making love to her. Later in Jungian therapy, he learned the woman was his anima, his feminine half. He decided since she was inherent inside him, he wasn’t missing out on anything. I’d never seen him so happy.
Ever since mother dubbed me a short-haired person like herself, I’ve tried to grow my hair long. Maybe she knew some weird genetic secret about us, for even with expensive hair care products and hats to keep it from drying in the sun, my locks never grow past my shoulders. My hairdresser has advised me to keep my curls cut to shoulder-length to avoid tangling, drying, breaking, and falling.
One night I dreamed my mother sat up in her deathbed and smiled at me. She looked radiant; her white hair a blinding halo circling her head. She said it was time for her to go.
“Don’t go, Mama,” I said, crying inconsolably.
She laughed, brushing a damp curl off my face. “Your hair looks good long.”
When I woke, I rose to look in the mirror. She was right.