A few generations of hair

When Jennifer brought her two-year-old daughter Harper to the nursing home to visit my grandmother, we pushed the wheelchair into the sunlit center courtyard, wound vacuum in one hand and “Co-Cola” (as they say in Georgia) in the other, and we were all cheered up by watching Harper run from plant to plant and tree to tree, poking her little fingers at bark and bloom. She swung round and round the crape myrtles until the salubrious effects of my grandmother’s Valium started to wane and we went back inside.

After they left, my grandmother pronounced the red-headed Harper “full of beans.” She said Jennifer was delightful too, but after a few beats she wondered “why such a pretty girl would do that to her hair.” Maybe she was just hair-obsessed because her own hadn’t been washed for a couple of weeks, except by a shower cap shampoo at the hospital, which just seemed to make her hair greasier. I offered to bring her some astronaut shampoo, but she really wanted a wash and set.

“Well,” I said, “I think the crimson and purple look great on Jen.” Big Wis looked at me skeptically. “And actually I saw a picture of her head shaved once. She’s one of the few people I know who can carry it off.” In her silence I became self conscious about my split ends and the rat’s nest at the back of my neck. I thought of the time in 10th grade when I tried to pierce my eyebrow with a safety pin, but my skin kept spitting out the ring, rejecting the transplant. And the belly button that got infected in 8th grade because I’d gone too deep with the needle. And the time I ran away. And my senior year of college when I dropped out for a semester, gained major lbs (could no longer fit into those Gap khakis and Talbots button-downs she loves so much), and developed some substance abuse issues. And the nails – always too short – always more obvious than the other mistakes. (Since I was a kid – “If you grow them out, I will buy you a new such and such/take you to Chucky Cheese.”) She nudged me a few times in the hospital room to stop biting.

“At least Jennifer doesn’t have tattoos,” I said. “Or piercings.”

“Yes,” said Big Wis. “That is certainly true. It could be worse.”

We try to prevent our grandparents from knowing exactly how much worse it can get. But I have decided that they like the challenge of loving us through the phases and rebellions (as long as they get to love at a distance). I think they’re proud in some way that they’re still friendly with the cool kids. Even though Big Wis came back from the nursing home salon that afternoon with a smooth grey helmet for a head instead of her natural, wild curls, I felt like she was inspired in some small way by Jennifer’s hair. Just like she was inspired by Harper’s somersaults in the grass. At any rate, I feel like it’s good for older people to see the most flagrant signs of youth. And I don’t think that it’s intolerance that makes some grandparents shake their heads at the mohawks and ripped jeans and gum-chewing on the street corner (yes, I think like a 1950s housewife sometimes – that is my secret), I think they’re just over all that stuff. They just want to meet people so put-together that looks aren’t a distraction. They don’t understand people trying to draw attention to themselves in that way. “Why would such a pretty girl do that to her hair?” was a very real question to my grandmother. She didn’t see that appearance can still be an effective translator of emotion. Especially, I think, for people who are attracted to metaphor, to poetry, and to art in general.

Later that day I explained to Big Wis that Jen had had a really tough year, and my grandmother said that she was sorry, and that she now understood the hair.

One Thought on “A few generations of hair

  1. Your grandmother is a sweetie pie, makes me nostalgic for my grandmother. You have a lovely relationship with her. Be happy that she isn’t demented.

    Too bad for youth these days, rebellion has to be so extreme. I remember seeing the punks hanging around in Trafalgar square in 1980, I don’t know how much more extreme one can get than that. What on earth could their kids think up? It was so easy for my generation!

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