A Memoir by Karen Zey
I beg for weeks, fed up with my wispy straight hair. Getting a perm hurts, Mom warns. You’re too young. I plead my case. I’m ten and the oldest. I can take it. Pl-e-a-s-e. When a Toni Home Perm kit appears on the kitchen counter, my tummy goes aflutter. Mom winds tissue-wrapped strands of my hair around pink plastic rods as thin as chicken bones. The ammonia stench makes my eyes water. The egg timer tick-tick-ticks, then she rinses off the solution. Voila! In the mirror, a corona of princess-pretty curls. But after a couple of months, my hair’s gone straight with frizzy ends. I put aside fairy tales and turn to Nancy Drew, a clever girl with a smooth bob.
At 19, I consider myself a serious thinker. Parted down the middle, my college hair cascades down my back. Long and straight like Joni Mitchell’s, as smooth as a love song lyric, but chestnut brown rather than Joni’s garden-gold. In my bell bottom jeans and swinging hair, I hunt for new ideas. Truth from the poets and politicians. Justice in the streets. Love in the embrace of a boy with dark shaggy locks, wire-frame glasses and big words bubbling from his mouth. I don’t remember who grows tired of whom first. My vague heartache lingers, but before commencement day, I cut my hair shoulder-length.
Weddings require serious dos. Elaborate curls pinned into a chignon; a feat of elegance sprayed in place to last the ceremony. Vows spoken from the heart to a blond man with kind eyes and a beard. Til death do us part. How long do beautiful things last? A decade until an aneurysm wipes out our forever life, and my world goes dark with pain. Grief claws at my skin. Nighttime brings jagged sobs, which I smother to avoid waking my little one in his crib. I wake up groggy and stumble out of bed with racoon eyes. Tie the mess on my head into a haphazard ponytail. Love for a two-year-old with his father’s blond hair saves me. The joys of motherhood propel me onward. Slowly, slowly, I find solace in the memories of how I once loved a man deeply and was loved in return.
Daycare drop-off, teaching between bells, grocery pick-up, healthy dinners, homework- bath-bedtime story. A handful of disastrous blind dates set up by well-meaning friends help me settle into almost-comfortable singlehood. I focus on cubs and skating lessons, visits with my out-of-town sisters, a job transfer to a new school. Perched in the hairdresser’s chair, I ask my guy for something low-maintenance. He cuts my hair in layers and suggests highlights. I’m not a mousy brown person at heart, and my head is soon festooned with foil. It will cost me every six to eight weeks, but at least I’m putting my best face forward—framed by the best coif I can afford.
Midlife holds surprises. Romance leads to a second wedding and a happiness I thought I’d never see again. Two teachers at the supper table absorbed in school talk, two parents reining in a teenager’s high jinks, two soulmates making time for dinner dates. A busy and contented life. My highlights stay but I opt for shorter hair. A long as I don’t look like my elderly mother with her cap of permed curls. I wield different brushes, use the latest in foaming mousse—but somehow, I’ve curated her hairstyle. I like your hair short, my 85-year-old mother says. Long hair ages older women. Mom always speaks her mind. When the new century arrives, my mirror reflects the truth. I look more and more like her.
Retirement pushes me into new creative ventures, none of which involve changing my hair. In a youthful literary landscape, how much truth should my author photo reveal? A thinking woman can embrace going grey—or colour and style her hair in whatever way she damn well pleases. Like keeping expensive layers of garden-gold highlights. Until COVID turns the world upside down. Giving up visits to the hairdresser becomes a safety precaution, a minor loss amid the worries. My mousy brown grows out, with one silvery hank on the left, from forehead to chin. When my hair reaches my shoulders, I think about Mom and the gleam of scissors in my bathroom cabinet. After some coaxing, hubby trims my straggly ends. Here I am, an old woman fussing over her hair, yearning to be present and presentable in this vast, changing world.
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Karen Zey is a Canadian writer from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her CNF has appeared in Porcupine Literary, Five Minutes, Bright Flash Literary Review, (mac)ro(mic), Potato Soup Journal and other fine places. Karen leads the Circle of Life Writers workshops at her community library. You can follow her micro-musings about life and writing on Twitter @zippyzey