I’ve noticed a few silvers in the mirror lately and I’m kind of freaking out. Not in the way you might be thinking. I’m not afraid to grow old. I’m just afraid of grey hair. There’s a difference.
By the age of 30, my dad’s hair was dipped and preserved in silver like a knight’s helmet of radiance. It was beautiful hair and I never associated it with being “old”, per se. He had a youthful heart clear up ‘til the end. His hair wasn’t old – it was dignified.
I like silver hair. I think it’s actually sort of sexy. It shows that a person has earned his or her Scout badges and is probably worth talking to. I have beautiful friends with beautiful silver hair. I love it.
At 36, I understand full well what’s expected of me going forward. No midriff exposing halters. No Spandex. No more dancing on bars. I’m not saying I’m ready to lie down and let the Grim Reaper have his way with me. I’m a mother. A fighter. I’ve been known to jump out of a plane. I once joined a Chinese protest which ended with me being escorted out at gunpoint. I’m persistent, a lover of fun, and just a little bit scrappy. Let age try and get me. I’ll kick it in the head. In the teeth. I’ll bite age in the ass.
So, why am I afraid of the greys?
It was 1984. That year is all jumbled in my head. It was back in the days before the Wall had come down. Before Perestroika. George H. W. Bush did not yet know he was “not gonna do it” at that juncture. Nobody had a home computer, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as Gore had not yet invented the Internet. Phones made a funny series of clicks when you pressed the number buttons and they always had a cord. Adventurous non-Asian Americans ate “Oriental food” like chop suey and Chun King Chow Mein from a can. There were no milkshakes in the yard – let alone a best one. Stretch denim and fleece had not hit the scene yet. Reality television was called “the news.” Life was in muted color, yellowed around the edges and prone to appearances of people with bad hair and even worse teeth.
At age 11, I was more awkward than most. And as this particular Year of Our Lord suggests, I was constantly under the scrutiny of my mother, who strove to keep me from falling into the clutches of unforeseen harm. My mother has a lot of motherly concerns: absence of a coat in winter, inadequate lighting – but nothing sends her into spasms of terror faster than the appearance of a freshly showered coif.
When I was younger, I would be putting the final touches on getting ready for school, when my mother’s silhouette would appear noiselessly at the bathroom door.
“And just where do you think you are going with that wet head, young lady?” She would ask, emphasizing the offense with raised eyebrows. “It is the middle of winter. You could catch pneumonia and die if you go out like that. I had a friend who died of pneumonia because of a wet head. Think about that for a minute. Her poor family.”
My mother has an entire graveyard worth of friends who have died due to unthinkable circumstances. They have fallen off three-legged stools, choked while eating in bed, fallen on screwdrivers while running…and yes, failed to dry hair adequately.
“Mom,” I would say, “It’s 60 degrees out. It’s not that cold.”
“Well, it’s too cold to be traipsing around with a wet head, that’s for sure. I want your hair dry before you leave this house.”
Obediently, I would take out the hairdryer and blast my head for several minutes. Gathering my coat and backpack, I would break for the door.
“Not so fast,” She would call from the kitchen as I turned the knob of the front door to catch my bus. “Wait, please.” She would then hustle to the door where she would proceed to run her fingers through my hair.
“It’s still wet,” she’d report.
“What? Where?” I would ask, trying to feel for myself.
“In the back. You can’t feel it because it’s in the back. Stop trying, you’re going to pull your shoulder out and cause permanent damage. That’s the last thing you need – permanent shoulder damage. Run back upstairs and dry it some more, please. And Erika?”
“No more morning showers in the winter. Understood?”
At age 11, I was already more awkward than most kids. I was pudgy. I had a face that, according to my well-meaning father, would someday catch up with my nose. My arms and legs were covered in thick, brown wool, and I had a monobrow, the fact of which I was mercifully ignorant. I dressed entirely in outfits from a place called Anthony’s, which was mostly frequented by little old ladies and tired looking women pushing shopping cartfuls of children through the aisles. To make matters worse, my mother kept all of my sweaters in mothballs over the summer, so no matter how new my outfits from Anthony’s appeared, they always had a hint of the geriatric to them.
But most importantly, I had overactive oil glands on my head which made daily cleansing a requirement. Later, in my teen years, this excess oil problem would make a public mockery of my T-Zone. By the time I made it to my junior year, there was so much oil in my face and hair it would warrant the attention of OPEC. Men in robes and turbans would show up on our doorstep and attempt to make deals with my parents for drilling rights.
Regardless, my mother was resolute. There would be no hair washing in the morning before school. No daughter of hers would die of pneumonia from a wet head.
This was, of course, a problem. When I washed my hair before bed, I would wake up with large swirls and bumps, creating the impression that I had a large tumor growing under the surface. I could wet it back into place, but then we were back to square one with the whole wet head problem.
So imagine my relief when one morning my mother handed me a canister of MiniPoo.
MiniPoo, despite sounding suspiciously like something a hamster makes in the privacy of its cage, is a white powder intended for use in one’s hair for cleansing purposes.
When you can’t shampoo…MiniPoo!
Marketed to invalids stuck in their hospital beds, it is the answer to the problem of the wet head on a cold day. Simply shake the talc-like powder in your hair and brush out the oil and dirt. Et voila! Hair like a mink.
And who doesn’t want hair like a mink?
The picture on the canister showed a gorgeous shiny haired brunette who looked as if she had just stepped out of a salon. I’d shake that white powder into my slick brown locks and watch it go to work cleaning up like a baguette on an empty plate of peppers and Italian sausages.
At first, my roots would turn an unsettling color of gray, so I’d brush and brush the dirt and oil away. When the gray would not completely disappear, I would settle on trying to make the color of my hair uniform. It may not have glistened like the girl’s hair on the canister, but at least it didn’t make a cloud when bumped. At some point, I’d start to get frustrated when I would notice that the roots running down my part had attracted the MiniPoo, turning the white powder into a kind of a paste. I’d rub my head with a towel, trying to grind it in and out as best I could. When my hair was somewhat under control, I would notice that my monobrow was a distinctly different shade of brown than my hair. It was nothing that a little puff of MiniPoo couldn’t solve and I’d set to work rubbing that monobrow until the drapes matched the…table runner.
Thinking I had at long last conquered the problem of bad morning hair, I would grab my favorite moth-free sweater and head to the bus stop. Completely oblivious to the strange looks I was getting from my peers, I would take a seat alone at the front of the bus where I would strike up a conversation with the bus driver. Our bus driver was the father of my fourth grade teacher and often had funny stories to tell about when he was a young kid in school.
“Oh, those were the days,” he’d say. “Young Tim was always sneaking out of the house to go down to the dime store. There was a young lady he was sweet on whose father worked there.”
“Those were the days,” I’d nod, flipping my freshly MiniPooed hair back over my shoulder and releasing the sweet scent of an entirely intact sweater.
At school, the kids would give me a wide berth, although I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until a kid in my homeroom class asked me what my room number at the nursing home was that I began to suspect that my new look wasn’t working for me.
Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t working for me then and it’s not going to work for me now. In a way not entirely unlike Benjamin Button, I’ve already been there, done that. And while I may have been raised under unusual circumstances, I simply refuse to return full circle to that reflection. And while I haven’t yet picked up the bottle of brown elixir and gotten to work freezing my hair in perma-youth, rest assured it is coming. Oh yes, it is coming.
I realize that the years may someday get the best of me. My hair dye may fail or I may get too old to regularly apply. The monobrow will no doubt return and I’ll be sitting in my attic apartment with the trunks filled with old clothes preserved forever with dichlorobenzine and camphor. My family will bring me pureed meals and give me the requested up-to-the-minute reports on the weather. At some point I’ll take permanently to my bed, never again to get up to use the toilet, let alone the shower. In those final moments, I will be transported back to my younger years – back to the fifth grade – and I will know with the wisdom that comes with age: I could lie there and let my hair become a grease pit so that when I die I could donate it to science, or perhaps to the chicken wing place down the street; or, I could MiniPoo, and die…with dignity.