My World by a Hair

March 11, 2014

Though my hair is standard Jewish girl hair – curly, kinky, unruly and black – it is has always been my crowning glory.

It ran long and straight until the fourth grade, when my mother cut it on the eve of a car trip to Florida. She was not going to fight with my knotty locks in hotel rooms along the Interstate. The result was that in all of our vacation photos, I’m the one who looks like a badly drawn Dorothy Hamill.

As it grew back, it began to wind into soft curls, dotted here and there with spots of frizz. But I was short, and never thin. My feet were always too big for the rest of me. Yet my hair, despite its eccentricities, was dark enough, almost blue-black, to make me feel special.

There were bad haircuts – very, very bad cuts – along the way. In high school, I agreed to be a model for my favorite childhood babysitter, who’d become a hair stylist. Unfortunately, it was at a time when extremely short cuts were fashionable. Photographic evidence exists, so I cannot deny what my sons, laughing themselves into hiccups, observed: I looked like a boy.

Marriage led to mixed feelings about hair covering. Hats, at first, were fun, until they became cumbersome, especially on windy days. I moved on to berets and later bandanas and finally a sheitel. I began to wear it most of the time because what I wanted, above all, was to have hair. The sheitel makes me feel prettier in the way high heels make me feel thinner. It isn’t true, but the illusion works wonders on my psyche.

Several years ago, after placing the wig on its Styrofoam head, I noticed a grey streak peeking out along my part. Over time, that rebel strand reproduced until I had a full blown stripe, a solid white line dividing two lanes on an asphalt highway. A few well-meaning friends told me not to fret; after all, they said, I cover it anyway. But my hair was, in my eyes, my best feature. I needed to eye myself in the mirror without flinching.

Nearly in tears, I went straight to the hairdresser. She slathered on stinky globs of dye that made my scalp itch for days. Still, I sat impatiently flipping through magazines while it worked its magic, waiting for it to restore my youth. I thought about those elegant women who look so magnificent in their silver manes. I resolved that one day, I, too, would allow my head to turn completely white – graciously, proudly, without regret. For the time being, though, I wasn’t going down without a fight. I left the salon glad for my decision.

The only problem was that I lacked the patience to sit there for an hour every 3-4 weeks while the color set. I went a few times before I threw in the towel and began dying it myself at home instead. It was, first of all, decidedly less expensive that way. But more to the point, I could vacuum the carpets while my roots drank the elixir of youth.

I found a brand that was a bit more natural – at least it smelled better – and I made a habit of doing it almost regularly. And though I cannot say I felt like a new woman when I rinsed it out, I definitely congratulated myself for having made the effort. Here and there, I’d wonder at what point I’d be ready to go completely grey. The answer was always that I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

Besides, I only had that stripe to contend with anyway. A full head of beautiful white hair was long off on the horizon.

That is until a few days ago, when my husband and I sat side by side on the couch in our living room, strategizing about the upcoming weekend, during which each of us would need to be in fifteen places at once (well, we wouldn’t, but the boys would). When I bent forward to pick something up off the carpet, he uttered two words he likely wishes he could swallow whole: “Oh no!”

“What?” I asked with a twinge of panic in my voice.

“The back of your head has so much grey.” He offered his response gently, knowing how I’d take the news.

I thought of the famous story from the hagada about Rabbi Elazar. He’s only 18, but transforms overnight to appear as if he’s 70, full white beard and all.

In contrast, my reality crept up on me slowly, like a hunter staking out his prey. Though my story will never make it into the canon of Jewish literature, I relate to the shock Rabbi Elazar must have felt when he discovered that his youthful appearance had been snatched from him in the dead of night.

It is true that I was about a week overdue on my coloring schedule, but I was quite certain that this grey patch was a new arrival. My husband assured me that my hair remains lovely. He said I probably just missed a spot the last time I colored it. Sweet of him, but unlikely. I follow the instructions for full coverage to a tee.

Initially, I thought I should just accept that I’m now just a bit closer to giving in to that glorious silver crown I’ve admired on other women. I also considered reading my newest greys as a sign of wisdom and accomplishment, the trophies of a full, busy, and meaningful life. I try to tell myself not to fret, that it’s on the back of my head beyond my range of vision and that I cover it anyway.

But I know it is there. And I’m not ready to surrender. This weekend, I’m going to hunt that grey down and color it.