It was spring, 1962. This is where it started.
When she started to see gray hairs appear as she sat at stoplights and looked in the rear view mirror, she saw the future and started pulling the stray grays out.
“What the hell happened to your hair?” her father said as the teenage girl came down the stairs to meet her new date.
She didn’t reply, but she felt her chest tighten. After all, what are you supposed to say to that? She thought she looked pretty terrific. And she wanted to look great for this first date. She’d spent the afternoon and all her baby sitting money in the beauty salon.
Her mother came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron, having not heard the initial interchange. “How do you like Emily’s hair, Herb?”
“Mom…” Emily said, in that voice meant to shut her up. Someone, presumably her date, knocked on the door. Nobody moved to answer it. Her father left the room to watch the ballgame, shaking his head in what looked to Emily like disgust.
“Do I really look that bad?” she asked her mother after her father left the room, eyes tearing up.
“You look fine,” her mother said, though she had a hard time looking at this girl who, until that afternoon, had had a head full of honey colored curls and now had stick-straight hair. “Did he say something?” She looked toward her husband.
The girl nodded, tears spilling. The knock came again.
“Don’t cry,” her mother said. “It’s not about your hair. It’s about your date. You know your father doesn’t want you to grow up. It makes him feel old. You look fine. Go wash your face. I’ll answer the door.”
The date was a dud, but the girl grew up and met a lot of boys. Most of them never noticed her hair. Her girlfriends, however, and her mother, always noticed. It was a kind of a secret handshake they all shared when they first saw one another. “Oh, Emily! I love your hair!” or “Samantha! You got a great cut!” or “Peggy! I love you–a redhead!” Complimenting each other’s hair was the password to their friendship. If you’d messed up in some other way, say you didn’t like the dinner they’d prepared, or you’d maybe made a snarky remark about one of their boyfriends, you could always fix it with a good hair comment.
Emily’s hair forever remained the most important part of her appearance. In college she rolled it on orange juice cans every night before bed to try to relax the curl. To no avail. Humidity was its enemy.
By the 1970s she had come to terms with her curls; had come to love them, actually, and worn them loose in a ‘shag’ for years.
In the 1990s she found a new hairstylist who asked her how committed she was to the 1970s. Emily surrendered. He cut her hair very short to make it spiky using ‘product’ but as soon as it grew a fraction of an inch, the curl was too heavy to spike.
When she started to see gray hairs appear as she sat at stoplights and looked in the rear view mirror, she saw the future and started pulling the stray grays out. But eventually there were too many. As it began to turn white, she dyed it black and white and had to change her whole wardrobe, which had forever been autumn colors.
As gravity wrinkled her skin beyond the help of moisturizers and her breasts began to sag, she realized her hair was the only thing she could really change. At 72, she looked in the mirror and refused to see her mother. She put purple, blue and apple green in her otherwise white curls. People stopped her on the street, telling her they loved her hair. Her grandsons thought she was cool. The boys, meanwhile, spent a lot of time in front of the mirror, fussing with their own hair. The eight year old had his father shave SF Giants into the back of his hair. The eleven year old grew his hair to shoulder length like his favorite baseball player. And the oldest had a pompadour. Her father and mother had gotten old and died. They’d each had a head full of wild white hair.
The last thing her mother had said to her was, “Emily. I like your hair like that.”