Alice and I were two of four daughters growing up in the 1960s when hair was a revolution. My mother’s practical and aesthetic notions of hair were of the previous generation. She preferred our hair bobbed and easy to care for, and since we inherited her thin, fine locks, that was what often looked best on us. Somehow Alice managed to get permission to grow hers long when the rest of us didn’t. Since there was more of it, it seemed thicker, more luxurious than mine. I begged to be allowed to brush it, comb it, braid it, style it and pet it. It was a special bonding time between us, and my affection for Alice was cemented during the hours I spent grooming her. Our other sister competed for this opportunity for devotion as well. We sometimes quarreled over who would be allowed this privilege. Alice enjoyed arranging hair as well, and learned how to cut it, too. She cut our brother’s hair and our father’s hair. When she died, at the age of 20, this task was passed on to me. The summer that she died, she also cut my boyfriend’s hair. I swept it off the porch and stuffed it in a red, heart-shaped pillow I made. Jim became my husband 4 and a half years later.
Alice and Mike – summer 1979
Jim’s hair was a true marvel, not just to me, but to everyone who knew him. It was thick, curly, blond and the crowning glory of this California dream man. In his late teens, he had the “surfer dude” look: in the humidity of the ocean air, a front lock would fall down on his forehead just like Superman’s. When he took a job in the 80s, it was shorter, casually parted in the center, and more like Huey Lewis’. He didn’t have to use “product” to achieve that decade’s big hair, while I was perming and mousse-ing like crazy. As he aged, he very gradually acquired some gray strands at the temples. He died at the age of 47 of heart disease and complications from diabetes. Our priest remarked at observing his body in the funeral parlor, “Look at his hair – barely gray and still as stylish as a Ken doll.”
My father died of Alzheimer’s disease two years later. He was thirty years older than Jim ever got to be, his emphatically straight hair a dazzling white. As a young man at IBM, he parted his hair to one side and kept it meticulously short and neat. When he moved to California, he began to comb it straight back from his forehead and let it grow a little longer in back. As a teenager, I would cut it for him while he sat on the redwood deck in the back yard. I only needed to even the ends at his neck and trim around his ears. As the clippings fell to the boards at his feet, he would reflect on the change in the color mixture. Each year, more gray and white, less dark brown. The most wonderful aspect of cutting my father’s hair was that I was allowed to touch him, to smooth and caress his noble head. This was as intimate and affectionate as I could imagine being with him, and it was like knowing God to me.
My daughter Susan visited me the other day. It was our Mother’s Day and Master’s Graduation celebration, in a way, but really just a lovely, rainy day to be together, talk about her upcoming wedding, do a jigsaw puzzle, cook a meal, drink martinis and listen to jazz. And play with her hair. When she was in high school, I would fashion her hair into an “up-do” for proms and homecoming dances. I could probably do a decent job for her wedding day; why pay an expensive stylist? We began to experiment. Her silky soft, light brown hair felt like her baby’s locks in my hand. The wispy ends of a layered cut growing out gave the outline of that toddler hair I remember so well, framing her youthful, round cheeks. The tactile experience of this person whom I love stays with me, in my mind and memory, in my fingers, in my heart. I will have wedding photos soon to go along with the graceful curl in her baby book and the little red heart pillow, strands of love and memories woven together over time. A satisfying memorial, to my mind.