Act I, sc i
[In the kitchen, evening. I’m cooking, while my 14 year old is looking at Instagram]
14 year old: Mom, look at these hairstyles. All these girls dyed their hair gray.
Me: It’s crazy but it looks so cool. I love that picture of Rihanna with gray hair.
14 year old: You should dye your hair gray. It would look awesome.
Me: (shaking head, mumbling under breath) You have no idea what it’s like being 41, do you?
I used to be a redhead. I say “used to” because last year I started the vain process of covering white hair and now, it seems, it has spun out of control. Although, thus far, I haven’t minded the early signs of aging: a little extra weight, some wrinkles, some vague aches I never remember waking up with before, the white hair, even if expected, is a problem. It took me a long time to accept and love my hair color — it was a deep auburn, the kind of color that, as a child, people would stop and comment on. I would stand there, while women I didn’t know stroked my head, wishing for dark hair and olive skin. And though they would joke with my mother asking if I could go to the salon with them so they could try to replicate the color, I knew at a very young age that would be impossible. My grandmother had the same hair color as a child — though growing up before the widespread use of color film, we just had to take her word for it — and whether from experience or from pride, she hammered into my head that this color, with it’s golden highlights, could not be found in a bottle.
Therein lies the problem. After years of standing out, of gentle ridicule by classmates, of crass comments from drunk college boys (would boys have dared, when my grandmother was a teenager, to say such things to a young woman?), my red hair came to be part of how I identified myself and how other people identified me — one girl writing in my high school yearbook, “Your hair is like fire, man.” It was unique and it was something that connected me physically to my grandmother — beyond our emotional connection — something only she and I shared. I don’t know if she was happy to stand out as a child (I have a feeling she was) but she was beyond proud to have me set apart by a hair color that she provided for me, if only through the randomness of genetics.
But, like many of the ways we identify ourselves, some ridiculous and some meaningful — by our job, sports we’ve played, people we care for, or where we’re from — it changed. The red darkened to become more brown, the highlights were only detectable in the sun, and, of course, it started to gray. And after trying to subtly match the brownish color, I realized I was being defined by something that was no more.
Last week, I put my hair in the hands of a stylist and watched nervously as she painted highlights — highlights that, to me, were a little less gold and a little more blonde. And, aside from one humid bad hair day where I actually asked my husband, “Wait, do I look like Donald Trump?” (a question, by the way, one should never ask her husband as he may pause a little too long before answering), I think I love it. What I really love is the letting go. I feel a freedom I never had: eyeing bleached blondes and those adorable pastel pink streaks I see girls wearing now, looking for inspiration.
In reality, I’m still a suburban mother of three, so I’ll probably stick to a color more fitting of that identity. This week, I saw my grandmother for the first time after coloring my hair. Whether it was the universe’s sense of humor or bad timing on my part, she had just had cataracts surgery and her vision was better than it had been in years. Not only was I no longer a redhead, but the color differed from anything resembling my old color — our old color. And though it felt like a dramatic change for me, few people had actually noticed. She, of course, noticed right away. With her knowing smirk, her eyes widened. “It’s different,” she said but she was smiling. She liked it. Perhaps someday in the far-off future I’ll be lucky enough to have a redheaded grandchild, so I can tell people that she gets her hair color from me and I’ll have pictures to prove it.