Memorial Day: A ‘Hair’ Piece (Part 2)

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

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.”

 Jim in England

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.

 

Grandpa George

Grandpa George

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.

Memorial Day: A ‘Hair’ Piece (part 1 of 2)

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.

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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.

(Part 2 to be posted on Friday…)

 

Memorial Day

Steve and I are headed for adventure again today, an opportunity to make more memories This time, we have to remember to feed Steve before he gets all ornery.  This was taken on Friday when we finally found a restaurant.  Food was ordered, but hadn’t arrived at table when I caught his listless expression.

Keeping family members in mind today: Alice, Jim, and Dad; and Steve’s Dad, too.  Blue skies and wispy clouds remind me of the great unknown adventure they are having today.