White Hair

My mother’s hair is white. Bright white, like the inside of a mussel shell, iridescent. Fine lines on a pink scalp. But only for an inch. Where the white roots end the brown hair dye begins, demarcating a continental divide. Mom hides the white drift under a fuzzy black bowler hat. Her hair, tucked behind her ears, has grown so long in the back that the white, blond, and brown threads are mixing, like silk poking out from the ears of corn neglected in my parents’ vegetable drawer. Sometimes a few wisps fly loose in front of her face but she doesn’t push them away. In my childhood her sleek brown hair curled into full dollops, shaped by pincurls she set at night and fixed with spray during the day, never falling into her face ever. The contrast between then and now is another sign of her social graces slipping away, like when she belches loudly and announces, “That felt good!” The mechanisms that have always kept her in check are disintegrating.

It’s early November and I’m on a weekend visit that I make every two weeks to help my elderly parents in their Boston suburb. When I arrive, I assemble my list of the usual tasks: grocery shop, laundry, pay bills. Mom’s hair makes it to the top of the list. Dad confides in me that they’re at a loss over what to do. He’s been known to help my mom dye her hair from a box when she can’t make it to the beauty salon, but those days are over. Multi-step tasks like cooking and cleaning have become difficult for them. Dad has a bit more capacity than she does: he is still driving short trips nearby though never at night. Mom stopped driving a few months ago, unaware that our family conspired to take her keys away, replacing them with a set to a long-gone Toyota Camry. I had tried a more direct approach but it didn’t work:

“You can’t drive, Mom.”
“Why not?”
“You’ve lost your short term memory.”
“Oh please. That’s just normal aging.”
“Not according to the doctor. You have mild cognitive impairment.”
“I was never tested for that!”
“Yes, you were. The doctor asked you questions for half an hour. He said you shouldn’t drive.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Exactly!”
“You listen to me: I’ve never had an accident, not once!”

She had a point, but it’s also true that the last time I got in a car with her, she straddled the broken white line and forgot where to turn for Stop n Shop, bumping over a curb. I was terrified, but my mother was never the type who could admit she was wrong, and now her denial was actually a symptom of the disease. I stopped arguing since she only drove once a month to Madeline’s salon anyway.

But now that we’ve replaced her keys with the phony set, she has stopped going altogether, and though I am relieved for her safety, it is painful to see my mother lose her capability. That line on her head is a chasm—in slid her memory for quotidian things, like what she wants to order off a menu, where she went today, and whether or not she called me that evening, but it has also engulfed parts of her persona in the process. Originally an elementary school teacher before becoming a mother, she volunteered at a small art museum throughout my childhood. Her docent card granted her free admission to local art museums, which we frequently visited; she also took me to theater, dance, and concerts, gifting me with a cultural education that couldn’t be had in my public school. She saw the lack and pitched herself as a cultural coordinator for the entire school system, landing her dream job. Here was a vibrant, gregarious woman who would flash her bright smile as she said hello to everyone in the room, who struck up conversations with strangers and asked incisive questions when they were taken from the audience, who remembered to send cards to friends when they were sick or lost someone. Now when she and my father frequent the nearby restaurants that appeal to the geriatric crowd, she bemoans that she never runs into anyone she knows. Most of the time she stays home, watching CNN on its continual loop, scanning Reader’s Digest, and forgetting the cup of water she put in the microwave to make tea.

It won’t be easy to take her to the hair salon. Though she is no longer independent, she is more independent-minded now than ever: in her imagination she is still her full self, complete with a head of brown hair.

****

When Mom takes off her hat, Madeline says, “Oh my goodness.” It’s a Saturday afternoon and the salon is full of elder white women. “Your hair is almost as long as mine!” Madeline says, making a quick save, staying silent on the continental divide. She has beautiful hair: full and long, a chocolate brown strewn with honey highlights.

When my mother says she wants her hair colored, Madeline tells her there’s not enough time in the schedule.

“Why don’t you get it cut today and have it colored another time,” I offer, knowing she can’t maintain a schedule of regular dye jobs.

“You might even want to keep it white,” Madeline says, gently taking her by the hand to her chair.

Thankfully, my mother agrees. She’d been anxious this morning, asking repeatedly about where we were going, who she was seeing and at what time. Hemming and hawing in her light blue bathrobe worn crookedly over her tiny frame, she hadn’t felt like going. I finally convinced her to dress and get in the car by reassuring her that we were seeing Madeline. Then as I drove she’d kept asking if I knew the address. I let her give me directions to the center of town: long term memories seem unscathed, firmly rooted on one side of the continent. When I had parked the car, she’d demanded, “Don’t tell her how to cut my hair!”

It would be out of character for me to do so, but Mom must have felt a loss of control–after all, I had made the appointment. Perhaps it’s not unlike what she felt when I cut my hair as a teenager—coming home one day with one side short and one side long, the front bleached with an amber streak. I was no longer the little girl whose thick, long black hair she brushed out from snarls and braided every morning. “Oh my god, I can’t take you with me anywhere now!” Mom exclaimed.

But she never did stop bringing me with her to shop at Filene’s Basement, to attend Sts Sahag and Mesrob church, to explore Isabella Stewart Gardner’s villa, and to see Lily Tomlin search for signs of intelligent life at the Wang Center. The rest of my appearance was subject to intense scrutiny and dragged into bargaining sessions, however. I couldn’t wear my jean jacket with the honeycomb bleached into the back (in homage to Sting) because of my crazy hair. Well, then, I retorted, she would have to buy me the oversized tweed coat at Syms instead. Appearance thus disrupted our relationship, teaching me a damning lesson. Sylvia was a striking woman with full, well-balanced features, dark hair and light skin; I resembled her but my nose more prominent, my smile thrust into overbite, my skin an earthier tone. I could never live up to her conventional beauty, nor to her standards. Appearance was the seat of her power as an Armenian American woman who came of age during the Fifties—from the care she took matching her pantsuit to the color of her lipstick to the style of her costume jewelry. Yielding to an atmospheric pressure, she assimilated to whiteness and conformed to strict gender roles. It wasn’t just crucial to look good in order to get ahead and what you wanted; to fail the standard of beauty could mean a stumble in society. This was the message I had absorbed, anyway.

After twenty minutes of snipping, Madeline calls me over. From behind, Mom’s hair is a pretty heart shape, cut close to her neck. When I step between her and the mirror, I look into her face, and I’m astonished. I thought this was the right thing to do, so I’m not prepared to feel a wave of regret. Mom’s hair is white. She looks old: frail and fragile. And yet somehow resolute. In her smock, without her arms, she looks like she’s strapped into a toboggan, ready to fly down a mountain.

“It looks nice!” I chirp, and Madeline confirms: “People pay to get this kind of bright white hair.” When Mom doesn’t look convinced, Madeline adds, “It’s like your daughter’s hair now. Look at how pretty her hair is.”

I turn to look in the mirror. My hair is gray. Not white. I get what Madeline’s trying to do. But I’m disoriented.

For all my life, Mom’s hair and eyes have been dark like mine. Sometimes, against my wishes, looking at her felt like seeing my own reflection. Here now, standing with my back to the salon’s mirror, I try to read her face, familiar in her deep brown eyes, foreign with this new cushion of fluffy cloud. She smiles nervously, and I can’t read her expression, if she’s angry or surrendering. Growing up, she was a master of masks, putting on one image to the public while showing a very different one at home, like answering the phone with a perfect, chiming hello immediately after screaming her head off. I expect that I will catch shit from her later.

Though it’s new for me to bring my mother to the hair salon, it is also true that I have been invested in her appearance long before this day. Beyond how she looked, my mother led a full, busy life. Sometimes she was late dying her hair, so her roots would show, and brat that I was, I told her that it looked terrible, that she was a phony and that I would never dye my hair like her. Ever.

Now I’m fifty and nature has found me. My hairdresser has suggested I get lowlights, but I like the silver. It’s also true that I’ve held onto my teenage oath. I didn’t want to be like my mother; I thought her vain, too concerned with appearance, with my appearance. I once had to flee to a stall of the church bathroom, crying silently into my hands, when she didn’t like how I looked, damning my “sad sack face” at an Armenian Church Youth of America dance. I just wanted my mother to be real with me, unknowingly aching for some kind of intimacy. To seek it, I ran far away from home to Los Angeles and then New York, finding community through poetry and performance. My appearance was composed of homemade costumes of crocheted hot pants, thrift store white gloves, and faux fur wings. I let my hair grow long into waves and wove it into braids; at others times I shaved it close to my skull: my own queer beauty. Underneath this carefully crafted sense of self, however, loomed a dormant fear: to be in proximity of my mother’s orbit, within her sphere of control, would be the end of me.

Now my mother is frail and elderly, and I need to care for her. I don’t know what I’m more terrified by: breaking my old promise to myself and thereby doing myself in. Or that I’m losing my mom, especially the problematic parts of her personality that have shaped me. Or that I am growing old myself. Here I am, ironically, imposing a standard of appearance on her that she once insisted of me.

When we get home from the salon, Mom won’t blame me for her white hair, but she won’t thank me either—not surprisingly, the episode will soon be erased from her memory banks. It seems there is no need for me to fear. The mask she was forced to wear to appear acceptable to strangers—and that had made me feel so abandoned—is now sloughing away with her social graces. Though she is barreling away from her former self, some of things that she had held on to so tightly are now tumbling into the chasm—and it may be a blessing.

Before we leave the salon, Mom writes out a check, and Madeline asks if she is still driving.

“Oh yes,” Mom answers. Does she honestly believe she is still actively behind the wheel? Or is her mask resurfacing to protect her dignity?

It doesn’t matter. I had always conceived of the continental divide as some kind of tectonic boundary, a rift where plateaus collide. In reality, it’s the point along the mountaintops from which raindrops drain in opposite directions: the east towards the Atlantic, the west towards the Pacific. Streams rush to rivers that fill the oceans, their currents eventually connecting somewhere on earth. Somehow my mother and I have bridged our imaginary chasm, the echoing chambers, between our current and former selves.

Madeline catches on. “Sometimes it’s a relief not to drive, right?” she replies, smiling and winking at me.

Image: by markus119, licensed under CC 2.0.

Nancy Agabian
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