A Memoir by Linda Allison
Today we’re tinting Alberta’s hair pink.
Well, a few strands anyway, just some fun highlights.
Using the step ladder I’ve pulled into the kitchen Miki, Nancy, and I help Alberta onto the stool we’ve moved near the sink. At four feet nine inches tall and just ten days shy of her 94th birthday, Alberta needs a little boost.
Miki pulls on bright blue plastic gloves and retrieves something that looks like a tube of toothpaste from her bag.
Alberta laughs lightly, holding my hand while she watches the preparations. She’s game for all of this. Alberta’s game for almost anything.
She pulls a wallet from her purse on the counter to show us “girls” a photo of her hair when she was younger. The picture is of Alberta and her husband Calvin, taken almost twenty-five years ago, nine years before Calvin passed away. Carefully laminated, the photo is from one of those portrait studios once popular across the Midwest.
In the picture, Alberta’s hair is a warm brown, the color of an acorn, thicker than her short, snowy white hair is now. But Alberta still has a fairly thick head of hair, especially for someone about to celebrate their 94th birthday. And those twinkly blue eyes peering out from the picture? They’re still the same.
From her tube, Miki squeezes thin ribbons of hot pink goo the consistency of tempera paint and, holding fine strands of Alberta’s hair between gloved thumb and index finger, slides her fingers from root to end. Nancy and I touch shoulders as we lean across my kitchen counter to watch. Miki assures us that the color will be lighter once we wash Alberta’s hair.
Alberta’s been staying with me and Bill, her youngest son, my boyfriend, for a few weeks, a respite of sorts from the tiny southern Illinois town where she lives. Miki and Nancy met Alberta the other evening at our house. Over glasses of Rose’, the conversation had turned to the colored highlights Miki had put in Nancy’s hair a month ago, mostly washed out now although traces of pink remain, and wouldn’t Alberta look cute if we did the same for her?
So here we are, in my kitchen on a Saturday afternoon, adding pink highlights to Alberta’s white hair. Miki strategically applies thin ribbons of pink. Then we wait, snacking on cheese and leftover meatballs while the color sets.
Once enough time has passed, Miki carefully positions Alberta’s head over the sink and, running her fingers through her hair, rinses it with the kitchen sink spray nozzle and tousles it lightly with one of my old towels. Something about all this reminds me of those downy baby chicks you see dyed pastel colors at Easter.
With the blow dryer, it takes just a minute, and we have the finished product, like a snow cone, fluffy white hair with streaks of pale strawberry. Miki, Nancy, and I high-five ourselves; we’re delighted with the outcome. The pink strands complement Alberta’s rosy cheeks, and she laughs as she looks at herself in the mirror, visibly pleased with the results.
It’s moments like this when I’m most inclined to feel that small stitch of sadness. I know Alberta’s remaining time on this earth is limited, and I think about how much I’ll miss her when she’s gone. But I don’t want to watch too much of the creeping decline that has already begun to steal snatches of her memory and withhold from Alberta the words she grasps as she tells her stories. I’ve seen that before in my parents; personalities dissolve, and their spirit disappears, leaving someone recognizable only physically, the essence of them gone. That sense of adventure and delight with the world around her that’s kept Alberta ginning for so many years, long after most of her friends and family are gone, I can’t bear the thought of it leaving her.
We were making her meatball recipe the other afternoon when Alberta mentioned she was thinking of quitting her bridge club. I hovered over my crockpot, trying to appear only mildly interested, but inside, my stomach churned with a swirling mixture of heartsickness and indignation. I’d heard that some women in her bridge club wanted Alberta out. Once an excellent player, I imagine her skills have waned. And although she might never acknowledge it, I suspect Alberta had gotten the hint that she’s no longer welcome. Don’t they know Alberta looks forward to bridge club every week? Can’t they appreciate the happy glow Alberta casts on everyone in her proximity?
Days after the hair-tinting adventure, Bill and I wave to Alberta as a nice airport employee pushes her wheelchair through security. Her oldest son will be waiting for her when she arrives in St. Louis in a couple of hours.
‘What do you think of my hair?’ we hear her ask the young man wheeling her to her gate.
‘I love it,’ he says indulgently, ‘It suits you.’
Bill and I chuckle, envisioning the reaction Alberta’s hair will receive from the bridge club ladies. We circle arms around one another’s waist as we wave one last time before Alberta disappears into a sea of travelers.
* * *
Linda Allison is a recovering banker living in The Woodlands, Texas, with the love of her life, found late in life. A hiker with an insatiable travel lust, emerging writer, photographer, and a very poor golfer who loves to play, Linda’s work has appeared in MacQueeny’s Quinterly, Star 82 Review, Dark Winter Lit, and others.