My hair talks to me. I didn’t realize it until this year. They said when I was born I had thick black hair. “Like a man” said my dad. Even in his sixties he couldn’t shake the memory.
At some point my bear fur fell out and was replaced by fine blonde hair. As a toddler, the photos show that I somehow came into some reddish curls or maybe it’s just the light. It’s hard to pinpoint when all these changes took place. People didn’t used to take pictures of their kids every six minutes. And if my hair was talking to me then, I couldn’t hear it over the mass confusion of everyday life.
For most of my life, brown hair has been one of the few body parts I didn’t have a problem with, my Slavic nose, small chest and big hips (the hyperextended deflated hour glass). I could write a book about my feet, perfectly proportioned to someone who’s five foot ten, except I’m five four and a half. Also with the feet: flat as a duck’s.
But I’d long resigned myself to my brown hair, to the fact that the brown-haired women in movies did often get the guy, but only after going the whole story being taken for granted, until somewhere in Act 3 he hits his head on the sink and realizes, Oh my god, you’ve been there all the time. Having brown hair was like being a perpetual Jane Austen heroine. But brown hair also had its benefits. In the movies, the blondes are much more likely to get kidnapped, while the brown-haired gals in their flak jackets are the ones who solve the kidnapping. Very big of us to save our fair sisters. Such it is, I thought. Brown hair solidified my standing as attractive but not beautiful, smart but not a genius, competent but not excelling at anything in particular. Brown hair seemed to say: you’re not exceptional, but you’ll do. You’ll never be on the cover of a magazine, but you might edit one.
So what is this new color? I thought we had the message down pat – I thought brown and I had an understanding. Now what are these wiry strands springing from my scalp, that could only have sprouted accompanied by a Dr. Seuss-type boing. Gray hair, what are you trying to tell me?
On a good day, my gray hair says, look at you, you’ve lasted. You’re still here! Post-cancer, post-divorce, post-getting my dream job and then losing it — I survived. Triumph! The gray hairs my little flying flags.
On a good day, my gray hair says, hey, you’ve learned a few things. Remember navigating the labyrinth of Lower B Hall at Canby High School, zigzagging through the maddening crowd, dodging fights, vomit, girls pressed against walls with boyfriends penetrating them through their denim, small frosh getting strangled. Clutching my math book, avoiding eye contact with anyone, which could only lead to death. These were brown-haired days.
Remember strapping on my college backpack like I knew where I was going, the beginning of pretending. Graduating somehow by virtue of having shown up for four years not because I’d mastered anything. More like a certificate of attendance. Remember post-graduation, years of wandering, accepting jobs, boyfriends, as they floated, pretending they were what I wanted. Bailing water from sinking boats. These were brown-haired days. So much time wasted.
And if you waste enough of it, and you don’t get asphyxiated, there you are brushing your hair and seeing a new glint. A long silver strand. It’s to your shoulders. The gray has assimilated. Gray is part of you. To pluck it out, what does that mean? That I deny my own experience? Isn’t maturity a good thing? I had cancer at twenty-five, didn’t I pray to live this long. Isn’t this the answer to that prayer? Aren’t I deep here, aging so gracefully. Do you see how deep I am? Do you see it?