Close your eyes. Imagine someone who is near and dear to you. You have a picture of how they look in your memory, the sound of their voice, probably some associations with certain smells, and memories of a tactile nature…the texture of their hair, perhaps. Did you used to watch your mother unpin a bundle of long hair and brush it out each night before bed? Did you perch on the counter and watch your father shave, feeling his scratchy face like Judy in Pat the Bunny and then the smooth, mobile skin of his smiling cheeks? Do you have a lock of your baby’s hair tied with a ribbon and taped to a page? Do you touch the ends of that fine, feathery stuff in wonder every so often at the turning of another year?
Hair. An intimate part of us mammals, dynamic and changing through our lifetime and, when preserved, a vault of information about culture, diet, and ancestry. It makes a very satisfying memorial, to my mind. Some people these days may find it distasteful, but at the turn of the last century, it was quite a popular material for crafting. Think of all the time, money and material spent these days on scrapbooks and photo albums. Money and photographs were hard to come by in the 19th century, but HAIR, hair was cheap and plentiful…and personal. Why not use it?
I first encountered examples of Victorian era hair art (see http://textilecollection.wisc.edu/featured_textile_articles/hair_wreath.html) while staying at a bed and breakfast establishment in Plymouth, Illinois. The lady who owned the place sold antiques, ran the village bank, and opened her home to guests…and cats. She told us that she had the largest private collection of hair wreaths in the nation. I looked at the framed pieces in awe. It was hard to believe that the fine strands so intricately woven were actually human hair. I couldn’t help picturing the mass of guck that clogs my bathtub drain and lurks in the corners on my bathroom floor. It made me think of how careless we are in managing our resources these days.
In the Hafford House at Old World Wisconsin, there hangs a shadow box that features a crown of small, white flowers and trailing ribbon, a photograph of a young woman in the habit of a nun, and a golden braid. When a novice took her vows, her hair would be cut as part of the ceremony of transformation. Families would not see this young woman once she was cloistered, so why not save her hair as a remembrance? This is possibly what Mary Hafford did to memorialize her daughter Ann, of whom we have no record beyond her eighteenth year. The artifact we have is not actually Ann Hafford, but it makes a good illustration for interpretation.
My partner, Steve, told me that his mother honors her loved ones on Memorial Day by visiting their graves. While I was growing up, my family never observed this tradition, probably because all my parents’ relatives are buried far from the states where we lived. I had considered Memorial Day a day for commemorating military casualties, but I welcome the occasion to remember three very important people in my life. My sister Alice, my husband Jim, and my father are buried in the same ground: the columbarium at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in California, where I was married. I am in Wisconsin and too far away to make a pilgrimage, so instead, I am visiting them in memory…and thinking about their hair.