The Write Prescription: The color of sassy

I am excited and humbled to follow Nancy Aronie, who brought us so many Writing from the Heart stories. That title belongs to her, so I am renaming this column The Write Prescription, based on a book I authored, because I think both writing and reading are treasured healing arts. Perhaps, along the way, you might be inspired to write your own stories. The following essay is about hair and where I found beauty.

Gray hair has become a COVID badge of honor. Not having access to beauty salons, women embraced going au naturel. I have never dyed my hair. My decision to keep my silver streaks, made over 25 years ago, came only after a period of moral wrestling.

When I was 10, I watched my mother wage war with a home hair-coloring kit. Every few days, she would remove the box from under the bathroom sink, turn it over in her hands, examine herself in the mirror, and, finally, return it unopened to the cabinet with a victorious slam of the door.

I had no idea what battle she had just won. I worried that some evil genie lurked inside that box, one that could threaten to change my mother forever. I wasn’t wrong to worry. My mother was about to change. But it wasn’t her hair that she decided needed recoloring, it was her mind.

I had always thought my mother had a playful side. I was fascinated by a picture of her at age 18 which shows her at the beach, her bikini-clad body perching on my father’s muscled shoulders. Her long, curly, dark brown hair waves in the ocean breeze. She and my father wear matching grins. The picture is in black and white, but it is alive with color, with the expectation that being a wife and then the mother she would become two years later would provide her the satisfaction her childhood never had. Growing up in an impoverished immigrant family with a mother damaged by a stroke, a distracted father, and the pitying and patronizing older sisters who raised her, no one asked my mother about her dreams. A higher education was out of reach, despite her keen intelligence and a thirst to ponder, to create, to thrive. When her husband and children didn’t inject her life with the joie de vivre she pined for, she searched for glamour in a nose job. Following the inevitable disappointment, my mother’s light began to fade. She suspected happiness didn’t come in a box of hair dye, but it would take falling into a depression and intense therapy to figure out what would satisfy her.

At age 35, the tone my mother chose for her new identity was serious — serious, adult college student, serious graduate, serious social worker. I was expected to become the same shade.

The Write Prescription: The color of sassy

“Don’t be so pleased when someone says you’re pretty,” my mother would say. “That’s not what’s important.”

The color of importance dulled everything. I no longer saw the sway of her hips when she walked. I forgot that my mother loved to dance, to swim in the sea.

I can’t say I felt pretty as a teenager. I, too, had a large nose that stood out from the ski jumps, pugs, and pert adornments around me in my suburban Boston town. But it matched my olive skin, which I loved, and my hair — nearly black and waist-length, which made me feel the smallest bit related to the sabras I met on my youth group trip to Israel. I was not as proud of the black hairs on my arms that caught the attention of the cool kids at school as I passed by their table at lunch.

I couldn’t escape my mother’s palette, though. It seeped into my closet, which reflected my mother’s practical hues: taupe, beige, tan, off-white. Only my hair, still its original dark mahogany brown, gleamed. It no longer reached my waist, though, but was shaped into a sensible bob.

When I saw those first strands of gray, I assumed my struggle over whether to hide them or not would be the same as my mother’s. Dyed the color of her earnestness, I went to the hair salon every two months for a trim, and judged the women who sat for hours with their goo- and foil-covered hair. I labeled them vain, frivolous, and ignorant of the dangers inherent in such chimeras of happiness. Lighten up, I’d say to myself. No, not my hair, my attitude. But I couldn’t stop myself.

My mother’s disdain for artificial beautification left such an impression that dyeing my hair would have been too great an act of rebellion. I would have grown weaker with the effort, like a middle-age Tinker Bell with no one to clap for her.

As I made my way through my 50s, though, I didn’t want to be serious all the time. I wanted my days to feel like those my mother spent at the beach. The idea of dyeing my hair seemed antithetical to that fantasy. I might look younger if I cover my gray, but I would feel older by agreeing that my age is a burden. Going natural made me feel like a rebel, a midlife version of a kid in a garage band. I turn this vision over in my mind as if I were my mother examining her box of Clairol. But I am not my mother. A rebel can’t be gray and grave. She must be silver and sassy. Perhaps if my mother had lived beyond 54, she would have realized that serious and playful are complementary hues. Since I’ll never know, I feel as if I have achieved a small rebellion. I like to think it is one my mother would have wanted for me.

I am in my 60s now. My closet is peppered with reds, oranges, blues, and purples. During quarantine, I colored my hair to match. It was temporary. A game. But I missed my silver, the color of sassy, and celebrated its return.