Michele Cacho-Negrete

Hair

One Saturday a month, for twenty-five years, my mother and the upstairs neighbor, Frances, dyed each other’s hair. The two would chat and gossip over a growing mound of lipstick-tipped cigarettes and endless cups of coffee as they “partook of the fountain of youth,” their euphemism for this process. They’d ruthlessly obliterate gray from furrowed rows with the determination of a farmer eliminating weeds. My mother was a practical woman, her hairstyle a boyish wash and wear, yet she continued this time-consuming process until she died at sixty-two. She insisted that although she was a “mere file clerk” her office demanded a youthful appearance because she was visible behind the stacks.

“You tell me,” she said, admiring the “youth job” in the mirror. “When do you see a woman under ninety with gray hair.”

I remember these Saturdays as bathed in sunlight regardless of weather, the women’s faces flooded with laughter, purpose, and a too rare sense of relaxation. As single mothers trying to earn a living and keep house, they had few moments of rest, and even fewer for self-indulgence. Hair-coloring fell midway between necessity and that self-indulgence. Frances was a devout Irish-Catholic and my mother an Eastern European Jew; what united them was the struggle to survive, concern about their children, and the perhaps universal women’s dilemma of hair.

I shared that dilemma. Whenever I complained about my kinky hair, my mother shook her head.  “When you were a baby, I couldn’t keep you in the carriage.” She inhaled deeply on her cigarette, her eyes sharply critical of my unhappiness and continued, “Strangers would grab you up they were so in love with your platinum curls. Women would kill for your hair. You don’t know how lucky you are.” She’d shake her head again, disappointed in her foolish daughter.

As a girl of eight or nine, I strove to remember when my hair was an asset rather than a liability. I closed my eyes imagining bright wisps of curls haloed charmingly around my small child’s face. I sometimes manufactured bits of comforting memory in counterpoint to attending a school mostly populated by Irish students with shining straight hair. My hair and my Jewishness had had relegated me to the ranks of “the other.”

My fuzzy hair, even at that young age, seemed symbolic of an inability to fit in, an outward manifestation of my internal shy awkwardness and feelings of inadequacy. Further, it suggested something outside of the realm of acceptability, an inability to conform to the mores of the day. Taunts of poodle-pup, coupled with little barks, trailed me down school corridors, but in a school beset by gangs, stealing and truancy, name-calling was a minor problem ignored by school authorities. Each morning when my mother wet and detangled my hair with a wide-toothed comb, I complained, cried, begged not to go to school. She always shook her head, reminding me that “an education is the most important thing you can get and it’s free.”

By junior high school, I discovered that I didn’t need my mother’s permission and became a visitor rather than student during much of my pre-college academic career, spending time in Manhattan at the big public library, Central Park, or one of the museums. One afternoon after emerging from the subway station, I walked a different route home through a predominantly Puerto-Rican neighborhood and spied a small beauty shop with a sign in English and Spanish that advertised expertise in cutting curly hair. The shop-window was clean and welcoming with advertisements for hair products and photos of beautiful woman with tamed hair-styles. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and after I retrieved my brother from the baby-sitter, I impatiently paced our tiny apartment until my mother arrived. I harangued her for two days until she finally relented and gave me five dollars for a hair cut.

The next afternoon, five dollars scrunched down in my pocket, I walked into the empty beauty parlor. A young Hispanic woman named Lillian whose wavy hair suggested now vanquished curls ushered me into a chair then surveyed my head.

“I’ve never worked with hair so kinky,” she confessed. “Not even my own.”

I was silent, my chest painful.

“But I can do this fine,” she said in a surge of confidence.

Lillian turned me away from the mirror in order to surprise me with my newly obedient locks when completed.

For some period of time hair fell around me like yellow snowflakes. Her face was tight with concentration, the snap of her scissors unnerving as she continued for what seemed like hours. When she was finished she stepped back to look at me. Her eyes announced failure. She silently turned me toward the mirror and I saw a stranger as shorn of hair as a new Marine. My face seemed huge, my forehead high as a balding man’s, an androgynous specter I’d never met.  I looked at her in helpless despair and she muttered apologies, looked away and said she wouldn’t take any money.

“When it grows back,” she said. “I’ll do it for free.”

That possibility didn’t exist.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered again after I gathered my courage to step out onto the street.

On the way home, blindly panic-stricken, I bumped into a man who put a kind hand on my shoulder and said, “Careful there son,” adding to my humiliation.

That night, after quietly surveying me, my mother said, “It will grow back before you know it.”

My marine cut further infused me with a sense of worthlessness, unmitigated by my mother’s continuing reassurance it would grow back, that it allowed my beautiful features to show, that I was not my hair and my worth was not judged by how long or curly or blonde it was. I finally said that if that was really true she wouldn’t dye her own hair.

She looked at me thoughtfully and lit a cigarette before answering. “In the business world women need to look young. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you need to look like a chick or they don’t hire you.”

Her response silenced me, suggesting, as it did, years to come in my struggle with hair.

In junior high school I discovered orange juice cans to attain the sleek hairstyles of Grace Kelley, Audrey Hepburn, Kim Novak. In what would become a nightly ritual I gathered together long hairpins, a wide-toothed comb, a jar of warm water, and clean cans. I stood before the little mirror over our kitchen sink, dipped the comb into the jar, wound a small section of hair so tightly around a can that my head hurt, then fastened it with hairpins. When the pinning was complete and copious amounts of hair spray applied, my hair, which resembled something destined for the trashcan, was covered with an enormous kerchief. Interestingly enough, a popular style evolved from this, and the streets were often filled with adolescent girls wearing kerchiefs over hair rollers like badges of femininity.

The sleepless discomfort of my head never actually resting on the pillow, of sharply-poking pins gone astray, punctuated by my mother’s incredulity about it, were offset by an imagined sense of being fashionable, that is if it didn’t rain allowing my petrified helmet to retain its shape. My lacquer-stiffened hair, when I looked in the mirror most mornings, seemed a promise of new possibilities – through discomfort and hard work I could achieve some measure of acceptance and a small circle of friends. My assumptions were wrong; a history of being an outcast coupled with my lack of school attendance and being a Jew, guaranteed the continuity of my status.

Despite my continuing absences I was promoted to high school because I managed to pass all my exams, showing up to take them, then leaving, mostly spending time at the New York Public Library, which I’d fallen in love with. The beautiful, light-filled reading room of elegant wooden chairs and long tables, couched in silence, literacy and contemplation, housed more than a few eccentrics and provided a place where I felt I belonged, a belief fostered by the solitary nature of others. Here I pursued my own interests, studying many obscure books while surreptitiously sweeping flakes of hair spray that resembled dandruff from the open pages. It was while sitting outside on the wide stone steps waiting for the library to open that I overheard a conversation between two African-American girls. They were rhapsodizing about a beauty parlor called Straight-Shot. I turned to look at them. Both girls, a bit older than me, had pin-straight hair. As soon as the library opened, I raced to the Manhattan telephone book, and located the Midtown beauty salon.

That afternoon I made an appointment. My mother, beleaguered by my continuing unhappiness about my hair, agreed to give me twenty-five dollars, a fortune to wrangle from her budget. That summer I could get working papers and I assured her that if the treatment was successful I would pay for it out of my earnings.

“You’ll have to,” she said. “I can’t afford this.”

“I know,” I told her. “Thanks Ma, and if it works maybe everything will change.”

She shook her head and said, “Your hair is beautiful, one day you’ll believe that.”

“Maybe one day, Ma. But not today.” I hugged her with gratitude.

That Saturday morning I walked into an enormous room more a warehouse than a beauty saloon. The air reeked with lye, burnt hair, and stale conditioner. There were at least twenty-five black women standing behind chairs so crowded together they barely had room to work and large hair-dryers stationed anywhere there was room. Straight-Shot was owned by a thin Caucasian man in an expensive suit who checked appointment times when a customer walked in the door. Against one wall was a private station occupied by the owner’s brother, Mr. Sam. Mr. Sam had an enormous mirror, a desk of various implements, a cushy barber’s chair, and his own hair dryer.

It was immediately apparent that white girls were assigned to Mr. Sam, while black girls were assigned to whichever woman’s chair became free. This made for a faster flow for the black woman, and I indicated that I wanted to be styled by one of them. The owner instead sent me to a small row of seats telling me I was next for Mr. Sam whose appointments were spaced out. As I waited, I really understood for the first time the meaning of segregation, something I’d never noticed in New York where so many different nationalities and skin shades crammed the streets together. It suddenly, really hit me that the black kids in school sat at their own table and walked home together, something so taken for granted I’d never thought about it before. In many ways, I had more in common with these students yet the possibility of a friendship hadn’t occurred to me. As I sat there I noted a snobbishness emanating from Mr. Sam and the white girls, all better-dressed than I was, and the working class consciousness instilled in me by my socialist mother spurred my anger. I stood to insist on one of the black women, but at that moment Mr. Sam motioned that it was my turn and I was far too eager for straight hair to protest.

The process consisted of a thick lye-scented paste combed on, duration carefully timed to avoid destroying the hair and to only minimally burn the scalp. It went quickly, girls were moved to the sink, paste washed out, conditioner applied, hair set on enormous rollers and dried.

The room was overpoweringly noisy and seemingly chaotic, but in truth it was orderly. The black women knew exactly what they were doing and turned out head after head of shining flips, the popular hairstyle of the moment. In contrast, Mr. Sam applied the paste, took his client to the sink where a black woman washed her hair, set it in rollers and placed her under the hair dryer, pulled out the rollers when the hair was dry. Mr. Sam took it from there, lingering over each head, moving a lock of hair just so, then with a voila! and showy flourish of hands perhaps similar to that of a doctor after brain surgery, sent her on her way. After this first time I insisted on being processed by one of the black women and the astonished owner shrugged his shoulders, and assigned me to whoever was available.

But that first time; I left Straight-Shot trailed by the odor of lye, my scalp on fire, my eyes red from fumes, but with gloriously straight hair. My mother wrinkled up her nose at the putrid smell and my brother ran around the kitchen holding his nose.

“I liked your curls,” my mother said.

“You didn’t have to live with them,” I answered.

“If it makes you happy.” She shrugged.

“I’m happy.”

Thus began my fifteen year relationship with Straight-Shot. By that summer I had working papers and a job and paid for my every-two-months appointment. I did indeed develop a small circle of friends, most probably due to my new-found confidence and more frequent appearances in school. That Monday, after my first appointment, attending school to take a test, I approached the black students’ table hesitantly. They looked up at me with startled concern. The civil rights movement was a faint whisper and I realized that I had no models of black/white friendships to guide me, that would come with my first adult job when I developed an integrated circle of friends and participated in civil rights marches, but then I felt intimidated by my own ignorance. I realized that the vague thread I might have begun a friendship on, kinky hair, no longer existed. I nodded, smiled, and walked to my own table.

By the time I graduated and got my first adult job straight hair was a way of life. In between appointments, and whenever it rained, I used my mother’s iron, on a low setting, to smooth my hair. Bits of spray starch, transferred from iron to hair, sometimes fell during work or on a date and embarrassed me, but the cost, burning scalp, one-week of putrid odor, and periodic ironing felt worth it.

My first husband, who was Cuban, loved my hair. By the time we married I had grown it quite long and often wore it in braids or, shades of the past, wrapped it around my head. He felt the putrid odor a small price to pay for my appearance. Over the next few years we had two sons and moved to Long Island. I continued my trips into the city to get my hair straightened. Despite the shifting culture around it, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Vietnam war, Straight-Shot never changed. Walking into the room was walking into the past. Mr. Sam, on his platform, never grayed despite being at least sixty. It was clear from his comb-over that he was balding. By then some black women were shifting to afro’s and Straight-Shot didn’t have the same mob scene. It had settled into a kind of placid conservatism that seemed reminiscent of those country clubs and lounges cradled by the past that men went to in order to escape the emerging present.

I had formed a close friendship with Donna, a black woman I worked with on the library board and in a group to establish a women’s shelter for battered women. We spoke about many things: anti-Semitism, racism, poverty in America and, one afternoon, hair. Both Donna and I had processed hair, and I spoke about letting mine go natural, noting how many white women in the civil rights movement had hair as kinky as their African-American friends.

It was an interesting time to be “the other,” for we were now in groups, a new kind of conformity marking us, moving us, in one sense, further away from our original, outcast designation into what was becoming an in-group. A romantic notion of being the outsider, personified by films like Easy Rider and Billy Jack, began to creep into the culture. The clothing, beards, hair-styles, idioms, vernacular were slowly being assimilated into the population at large, diminishing their initial rebellious inference, and although few actually engaged in civil disobedience, many had acquired the “uniform.” I realized that in this environment it took less courage to allow my hair to revert to type. I asked Donna if she thought about it.

“Well,” she answered. “Even with kinky hair, you pass for white so to speak, not me. I’m not ready, it’s a little scary, we’re still too close to slavery, Jim Crow and lynching, and look at what’s happening in the south. It would also be a problem with my part-time job if I showed up with an Afro.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

She shook herself, then smiled and hugged me. “You should be sorry – all those Jews killing Jesus.”

We laughed then, although none of it was funny, merely absurd and entrenched.

Over the next six months my hair grew out. It was a weird mix of long, straight pipes of hair narrowing into tightly curled wire. When there was enough of that wire I cut off everything that was straight. My husband was furious and insisted I straighten it again; I refused. He then bought a long blonde wig and insisted that I wear it out with him; I refused again. My decision to attend college, help establish a women’s center and run consciousness-raising groups with a feminist therapist, contributed to the disintegration of my marriage. My curly hair became an outward reflection of what I felt inside; a growing confidence and determination.

One afternoon, when Donna and I were handing out leaflets to establish a traveling library, I told her about the problem with my husband. She was sympathetic but had no suggestions. I held out a leaflet to a man in a business suit hurriedly passing by and he glared, actually shoved me and shouted, “Damn Kikes and Niggers everywhere forcing things down your throat.”

Donna and I looked at each other and she said, “Girl, guess you don’t pass for white after all; that nappy head gave you away.”

This time I felt a sense of pride and Donna said that for the first time she was seriously thinking about letting her hair go natural.

Donna moved to Seattle a few years later and we lost touch with each other. By then I had grown more politically active and my husband, a decent man mired in a chauvinistic culture, couldn’t accept the changes in me. We divorced. Soon after I graduated, my mother died, and my children and I moved to Maine near a close friend and her children.

One winter morning, five years later, I woke in my empty bed to snow falling outside and I realized how lonely Maine can be in the winter no matter how many friends. I looked at myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth and realized that my tight, mop of hair was now more gray than blonde. I thought about growing older alone, the prevalence of dyed hair among nearly all my friends, and my “business” presence, as my mother would have put it. Later that day, I had lunch with an unmarried friend whose electric-white hair was greatly admired. She smiled at my compliment that it looked beautiful with the blue dress she wore. After a moment or two, however she said, “All my friends love it, but I seem invisible to single men, and even when shopping, I have to really be assertive to get service. It’s as though once your hair is white, you get placed into the category of anonymous gray-haired women. It seems like the only people who see me, not my hair, are my friends.”

Her words, coupled with my loneliness, haunted me on the drive home.

“The hell with it,” I said. I drove to the drugstore, found the closest shade I could to my natural color, drove home, took a deep breath and opened the bottles. Later, I stared in the mirror at the familiar blonde and felt I looked ten years younger. I shook my head and whispered, “Here I am, Ma; partaking of the fountain of youth.”

My second husband, who I met a few months later and whose silver hair is considered distinguished, is ten years younger than me. For me, that fact justified dying my hair as routinely as visiting Straight-Shot once was.  One evening, after I’d colored my hair that day, my husband came home from work, kissed me hello and looking at my hair said, “Once again no silver strands among the gold.”

We laughed and then he added thoughtfully, “I hope you’re not doing it for me. I really don’t care.”

“No,” I assured him. “I’m doing it for myself.” I wondered, however, if that was true; I was all too conscious of our ten years difference.

A few nights later, over dinner with my older son’s family, my son hugged me Good-by and said, “You know Mom, it’s weird to have a wife who is grayer than my mother.”

On the way home, I thought about how comfortable my daughter-in-law was with her gray hair. She provided the role model for her daughters that I’d never had and I realized that if enough of us provided that type of role model, we might be able to change cultural perceptions. I remembered that old sixties adage; if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

“I’m going to go grey,” I told Kevin solemnly, the words and my voice portentous, as though the decision was life-altering. For Pete’s sake, I told myself, you’re just letting your hair grow out.

I kept my hair short during the growing-out process, self-conscious as the gray pushed the blonde further and further from my face till I was neither one color or the other. More than once a woman in the supermarket or at a conference or dinner party said to me, “You’re growing your hair out? When I nodded, I was often told, with a head-shake, “I wish I was brave enough to do it.”

I wondered at the concept we shared that it was brave to just let your hair revert to grey. I finally snapped at one woman, “For God’s sake, I’m not racing into a burning building to rescue children, I’m just letting my hair grow out.” She looked at me strangely.

Finally, one morning, the last remnants of blonde fell to the floor under the onslaught of my beautician’s scissors. She had initially declared my face too youthful for gray, but when we saw the pure white curling around my head, she said, “It’s gorgeous. Women would kill to have hair like that, thick and curly and that shade of silver.”

I chuckled at the similarity with my mother’s description of my curls, looked into the mirror and there my mother was as she might have looked had she stopped coloring her hair. I burst into tears, needing to immediately reassure my hairdresser that it had nothing to do with her.

For the most part, the difference my gray hair made was so small that I often forgot I’d let it grow out and was jolted when I spied myself in a mirror somewhere.

“Look at me,” I joked to Kevin. “I’m finally growing older with you.”

A year later Kevin and I went to Lapland, for him to present a week-long work study program for international students while I worked on a series of essays about the experience. I often went out to the ponds and woods with the working groups and helped take samples. It was arduous work that involved hauling logs, pushing through brush, wading through bogs; I had a blast. Most of the students were young women in their twenties, but it was easy to strike up friendships with them, despite age and language. We discussed cultural differences between our varied countries, shared life experiences, and even had a discussion about Lyme Disease which I’d had for an extended period of time and which was epidemic in many of their countries. I felt accepted as an equal.

The final day there we had a feast, the cafeteria tables heavy and pungent with reindeer steaks, grilled vegetables for the few vegetarians and a plethora of sweets, including scrumptious Finnish chocolate. Many of the students celebrated by drinking heavily and joyously. Just before the party was over, Erica, the unofficial spokeswoman for the group, came up to me and with a hug said, “We girls always talk about you and we want to be just like you when we’re your age.”

I looked behind her at the young faces beaming at me while I thanked her for what she meant as a compliment. I’d thought of myself as one of them while we worked together never realizing they were acutely aware of my age every moment. They had relegated me to the defined category of older women rather than viewing me as an individual and were thus surprised that I didn’t fit the stereotype. I lay in bed that night thinking about otherness in America, propagated by false assumptions, stereotypes that had a life of their own. I’d encountered it as a Jew, as having kinky hair, as being an early anti-war activist, and most recently as one of the aging. Only a year earlier nobody had ever used the term “your age” to describe me, merely because my hair was dyed; certainly my wrinkles were fully on display.

Her words, however, inspired an unexpected pang of anxiety; no matter how active I was, I was still ten years older then my husband who was often surrounded by young women. Despite Kevin always being scrupulously faithful, complimentary and loving, the anxiety persisted.

The next day, when we arrived in Helsinki, I went into a drugstore, purchased hair coloring, and dyed my hair in the hotel room. When it was done I looked in the mirror and, indeed, I looked ten years younger. It hadn’t changed anything physically, I was still a sixty-five year old woman, but what changed was the attitude of everyone around me; I was no longer a woman of “your age” indicative of an allowable suspension of belief about age that often occurs once a woman dyes her hair. Once again my hair was symbolic of societal beliefs.

Everyone was startled back home having assumed I was done with hair coloring. I felt cowardly at succumbing yet again to my fear of stereotypes, indeed accepting an insulting one to my husband, that men always seek younger women. I knew my effort to conceal the aging process would ultimately fail; that soon the difference between my hair color and face would present too great a denial of the obvious. Yet still I clung to my need for a certain kind of acceptance, even if that acceptance was based on cruel stereotypes about older women.

I thought about my mother and Frances fifty years ago, helping one another to dye their hair at that cracked kitchen table. I wished that my mother were with me now, that I could put my arm around her and joke about the fountain of youth. I wished I could say, Listen, mom—let’s be role models for your great-granddaughters and my granddaughters and stop pretending we’re still chicks when everyone knows we aren’t.  I imagined her, then, cradling my aging face between her hands and saying, why not, we’ll do it together.

Join the conversation