The Sacrament of Hair Color
E. Lillith McDermott
“The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.”
When I was seven-months pregnant with my daughter, I decided to bob my hair. I wobbled my belly into the salon and announced my decision. My hairdresser refused. Flabbergasted, I demanded to know what kind of stylist wouldn’t cut someone’s hair.
“One who cares about you,” Lynne responded. “You don’t really want a change of hairstyle. What you want is to not feel pregnant, and no haircut is going to do that.” We compromised on a trim.
For three years after my mother’s death, I followed the same advice. No change of style would bring her back or make me feel the loss less fully. Instead, I stayed with the same near-black color her death had trapped on my hair.
Dark chocolate isn’t my natural color. Judging by my roots, I’d guess I’m the same dark blonde I see on my daughter. Childhood memory made flesh – a little darker in the dead of winter, turning ethereal when the summer sun kisses her skin and burnishes her all over gold. Years have passed between me and that color, and a few grays coarsen the texture.
As a dance student in 1950’s California, my mother wore her hair up – an ashy knot on her head. As she grew toward 5’11” and watched her chances of a ballet career shrink, she chopped it into a pixie and dyed it dark. She parlayed her height into a moment of fame – art photos in a Los Angeles magazine. She would point out the way the hair brought out her cheekbones. “Look, I could still stand on point – and balance a cat on my back!” She kept the cat, but gave up the modeling.
My college years saw a variety of colors – reds, browns, and blondes – but never cut above my ears. I needed the comforting femininity of hair bouncing around my face while I confronted the male-dominated worlds of physics and math. My mother didn’t keep her hair short for long, either. She kept it dark, but grew it out when she landed in Las Vegas at twenty years old. “The heyday,” she’d say every time she’d trot out pictures, making sure we could pick her out on stage behind Mickey Rooney.
“The Dunes, The Sands.” She would trace the photos lovingly, completely oblivious to the uncomfortable looks her children and their friends would pass between them. No one liked their mom to show pictures of her younger self in sheer body stockings. “For God’s sake, it was an illusion! We wore clothes in those days.”
My early twenties saw me rushing across campus, hair in a ponytail, balancing non-linear geometry and organic chemistry. Her early twenties saw her, hair hidden, balancing a flaming candelabra across a casino stage.
Long black hair took her into her first marriage and off to San Francisco. She didn’t keep pictures from that wedding. “It was just a courthouse.” But she framed my bridal photo, chestnut hair piled high. Beyond our height, our similarities seemed few. Two women, aged 22, and recently married, but decades and miles apart. Having been born later in her life, I’d never seen much of myself in her face. Perhaps I would have recognized the woman in that courthouse.
Like the photographic evidence, she tossed that husband aside. She took her new college degree, my oldest brother – a toddler – and a coffee-colored bouffant to graduate school in Wisconsin. I too dyed my hair darker as I started medical school and my husband began work at his family’s business – a fourth generation. While she moved cross-country, we planted roots and lovingly painted our first house.
Her hair was a light russet when she married her Ph.D. advisor. I let my own hair grow in as we anticipated our first child. When she got pregnant with her second, my next oldest brother, she did not. Those were the days when doctors didn’t worry if mothers bleached their hair or drank cocktails nightly. Her hair grew more bronze with each of that marriage’s two pregnancies.
Marriage number two was as unsatisfying as the Wisconsin winters and her copper pageboy. Landing a tenured position, she arrived in Kansas as a phosphorescent blonde, single mother of three – the first woman hired in her department. With feathered bangs, she framed her diplomas and hung them in her office. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was a secretary.” I willingly let my own diplomas gather dust and joyfully welcomed my son to a house with an auburn stay-at-home mother.
My father entered as marriage number three. I was born within weeks of the courthouse ceremony, fuzz covering my head. Pointing to her belly in the photographs, my mother would say, “your first baby picture.” Five years later, and past the time most women have given up craving the new-baby smell, my save-the-marriage brother arrived. Like my daughter today, I was the all-over golden child during those years. But to make her brightness more than skin-deep, I’ve worked to fill our house with light to drive away the shadows cast by my childhood home.
It was only through the hindsight of siblings that I learned of Marlene. Even though the affair is still hidden behind the veil of childhood, the shortening of my mother’s shag was visible – her own self-described transition to lipstick lesbian. After Marlene’s marriage dissolved and she and her husband retreated to opposite coasts, I watched my mother’s hair lengthen. But in a few years, it was gone again – replaced by the shortest style of all – a 1990’s Lady Di. My 12-year-old self didn’t recognize the cut’s significance, even when I walked into my parents’ bedroom and startled apart a naked tryst with her “friend,” Jillian.
My own hair had become mousey, bowl cut with thick bangs, by the time I testified in the divorce. It almost didn’t matter when Jillian brought home her third cat and made it nearly impossible for me and my allergy-triggered asthma to spend the night. The Midwest courts preferred our father, despite the bruises. A therapist having an affair with her client was anathema enough, but two women and a 30-year age gap – intolerable. My father completed a parenting class, anger managed.
In my father’s house in rural Missouri, I spent a year attempting the crimped, curled bangs straight-to-the-sky look popular in the pick-up trucks cruising the strip. I couldn’t commit. Bring on the dye, even the scissors, but perms were out of the question. I couldn’t make that admission. A perm would fit in mid-Missouri, and I didn’t. I wouldn’t. My half-sister, in a rare moment of familial concern, sent mixed tapes. I discovered Black Flag and The Clash. With Joey Ramone as inspiration, I tossed aside the industrial sized cans of Aqua Net and let my hair fall in sheets.
Strength flowed through that hair and from the sideways looks in the school hallways. I learned to cook, to scoop my brother into my arms when our weekly visitations found him asleep at our mother’s locked door listening to Jillian’s squeals of laughter, and made pancakes to ease the loneliness with butter and syrup. That hair had other powers. It hid bruises and helped me escape.
Like the slow, incremental growing out of her hair, Jillian faded from my mother’s life. The harshness of her brassy gold gave way to a natural champagne. I’d taken to trimming my hair in the safety of my bathroom. Asking my father for anything, even a trip to the barber, was contentious. I saved my chips for one final cash-out. I packed my things and drove toward Kansas City with my back tingling from an anticipated expectation that at any second he would reach through the sticky vinyl seats and yank me back by my ponytail. He never grabbed me by the hair again, although he still has ahold of my brother.
As soon as I moved in, my mother took me for a haircut. She ran her hand through my hair and begged me to reconsider. I held firm and kept my “boring” color. She took her bright gold to teach in Japan, where her hair and her height made her a minor celebrity. I stayed home, drove myself to high school award ceremonies. Retirement neared and her spendthrift ways kept her landlocked. But as she dreamed of life between the mountains and beach, her hair reflected the California sun. Clairol 106 slid into Clairol 103, and eventually gave way to Clairol 98.
As if forced to balance the scale, my hair grew darker as I grew older. Like the slow fade of hair dyes, life inches inexorably forward. My mother blew through her retirement money. We bought her a house. Our children started at the same private school from which my husband had graduated while he took over the family business. Life found a pace to match the steadiness of my darkened hair. Periodically I’d get bored, bleach some chunks and dye them red or purple. Nuclear winter to my mother’s eternal summer. The luncheon ladies at my golf club tisked. What was next – visible track marks?
Wanting our kids to have a dream childhood in a dream house, my husband and I prepared to take our 1920’s Grande Dame down to the studs. We packed and searched for a rental house – my mother there for every box. It was during the move that she decided to have her knee replaced – a routine surgery that would turn out to be anything but. She set the schedule around her haircuts. Decisions multiplied as fast as contractors. Unable to handle one more color choice, I removed the purple and settled into basic brown. She clucked at the simple style and made me want to pull it out by the roots.
Half-opened boxes piled to the ceiling, architectural plans and fixture catalogs covered every surface and spring break began to feel like a finish line. With two weeks left before relaxation, my husband came home with guilt coloring his Dutch-blonde face. He’d been tracking our cruise’s bookings and had gotten a deal on a stateroom – my mother was invited. I was frustrated and angry, foresight nothing like hindsight.
Hair as gold as the ocean was blue, she clung to the side of the sea-water pool, one hand white-knuckling a life jacket. “Stop pushing!” she cried. “I hate getting my hair wet, and I don’t trust those dolphins.” Giving up, my husband and I swam the kids into the middle of the enclosure. Three flaxen heads and one chocolate, bobbing in the center, the deepest part of the dolphin playground. Silver bodies bumped and teased. I never flinched. We’re strong swimmers, and I can handle unpredictability.
With the washed-out sense of finality that only comes with the downward spiral of an ICU, I curled next to her in the hospital bed. The papers signed, the tubes removed, I combed her hair. How many times had we argued about the amount of grey in her roots? For years, she’d claimed she wasn’t aging. With the muted surprise left after ten weeks of surgical complications, I discovered the truth. She wasn’t grey – age had finally given her the platinum she’d claimed as natural. Over the day and night that it took the blood to fill her abdomen, I stroked her corn-silk hair and told her I was wrong – it really was a beautiful color.
Three years after we buried Mom, I decided it was time for a change – new hair for a new era. Sitting in the salon chair, I announced my intentions. This time Lynne didn’t argue. She might have, she told me, “if you’d wanted to do this a year ago. But I think we’re ready.” A bit before my mother’s death, Lynne’s father suffered a heart attack. Her mother heard his body hit the garage floor. He was dead before she made it out of the kitchen. Lynne’s hair is still the same shoulder-length shag it was the day she took the call.
We planned, set up a schedule of deep conditioning treatments. I grew my hair to Disney princess length. Bleach is caustic, drying and hard. The day arrived. As I drove to the salon, my foot hesitated on the accelerator. I hadn’t told many people, only my husband and children. I could chicken out. No one would think less of me. But sometimes you have to make yourself push through. Like jumping off the diving board in August when you know the pool is freezing. Shocking, but refreshing. A sudden rebirth. Almost nothing has the power of hair color – an outward and visible sign of our inward reflections. I needed the change – to close an internal chapter. To heal.
I sat in the chair, smock tight to my neck. With practiced hands, Lynne mixed and swirled her concoctions. Using her long-handled paintbrush, she anointed me with bleach and oils. Shampoo massaged at the scalp followed sweet-smelling steam. Once dry, the ritual repeated. Seven hours and my hair began to break. Eight inches gone, I finally looked at myself with platinum hair.
I called my husband. Knowing is not seeing. “No one does this sort of thing.”
“I see actors and actresses do it all the time.”
I paced around the house, waiting for him to pull into the drive. “Okay, but no one in our world does this sort of thing.”
His Cadillac came to a stop, he got out, scanned the windows. I waved. He laughed. “You’re right. No one does this sort of thing.”
Our winter Friday night routine – the ice rink and dinner at the sky box. The kids were already there with friends. Some people walked right by me, others stopped dead. A girlfriend ran her hands over my head with the familiarity usually reserved for the bellies of pregnant women. “I wish I could pull this off.”
A few days later, I sat across from a friend – my perennial sounding board. She smiled. “That’s bold. And takes courage.”
I shook my head. “Not courage. Moxie, maybe. But not courage. Besides, you know me –I like a little chaos.”
“Within reason.” She laughed.
That night, I sat reading to my son. Too big to really fit in one chair, we were a tangle of limbs, me as much on him as he was on me.
He’d found the change a hard adjustment. Even with forewarning, he didn’t trust the color. He reached up, rubbing strands together in his fingers. “What if I wanted to dye my hair?”
I ran my hand over his hazel, hockey-scented hair. “If you want, of course, you can.”
He snuggled closer. “And it would be okay?”
I rocked us gently, kissed his head. “Of course. It’s just hair. It isn’t permanent.” After all, a change of cut and color never hurt anyone.