Black-haired and hazel-eyed, my Irish mother was the only girl in a family with four brothers. All her brothers’ hair began to turn gray at an early age, but mama’s didn’t. She just had a narrow streak of white from her right temple straight back through her lush, black waves.
Unfortunately, my hair took after my English daddy, who had brown hair and blue eyes. I was always jealous of mother’s hair.
When I was fifteen years old or so, mama took me to her hairdresser. The shop was centrally located in a storefront beside Sears, Roebuck and Company on North Irby Street. I thought I was getting a hair permanent, an event I dreaded. Frizzy, smelly, itchy curls for Easter. More frizzy, smelly, itchy curls for Christmas.
I pouted as I was draped in plastic and the leather chair pumped up to the appropriate level. My mood didn’t improve as mama whispered something to the beautician, gave me a pat and said she’d be in the cubicle next door.
The next thing I knew the circumference of my face and neck was being wrapped in cotton batting, as usual. Cold smelly chemicals were dabbed on my hair, just like usual. My head was encased in a plastic shower-cap, an egg timer was set and a magazine plopped into my hands.
Determined to make the best of it, I got engrossed in the romantic short story in the Redbook and tried to ignore the drips escaping down the back of my neck. “We’ll do the roll-ups in a bit,” the smiling lady said as she went out for a chat with mama.
Eventually the timer went off, the breezy beautician returned, peeked under the plastic, pronounced it “just right” and whirled me around to the sink for a rinse. Huddled under the noisy hair dryer, I finished Redbook, McCall’s magazine and an old Readers Digest before we got to the un-roll and the brush-out. Finally the smiling beautician presented me with a hand mirror.
Holy cow! My hair had undergone a miracle! It was no longer a mousy ash brown – it was now a lovely auburn brown. (I have never seen my natural hair color since.) I suddenly loved my mother fiercely – she understood, she really understood how much I had always admired her hair, how much I had always deplored mine.
Soon after that my whole family, grandparents and all, went to a movie at the Carolina Theater. It was rare for the grandparents to attend a movie – raising their family in the depression years they didn’t “hold with frivolous foofaraw.” But there they were standing in line just behind mama, daddy, Harold and me.
In a gruff whisper, Da spoke into Mimi’s ear. “Betty’s sure gotten to be red-headed, ain’t she…” You could hear the question mark in his comment, wondering how on earth my hair had gone from brown to red.
Da’s brand of Irish were Black Irish – mostly black or dark-haired, not red-haired, and they didn’t change their gene structure at fifteen. I can still hear Mimi shush-shushing him, trying to explain in a few words about beauty parlors and hair dye.
Since it goes better with the fire-engine red shirts I favor, in recent years I tended to stick with medium brown hair. When too much familial gray was first showing up around the edges, I visited my neighborhood drugstore. My tried and true brand was out.
I browsed through the hair-color selections. “Brown with auburn highlights.” Hmmm. A bit of auburn again might be fun. I shampooed it in, read a few chapters of a murder mystery, rinsed, dried, and –
My hair was the most unnatural pink you ever saw. Highlights? Forget highlights, where was the brown? I prayed I didn’t see anyone I knew as I drove back to the store and bought brown with NO red in it, according to the label. I re-colored, re-rinsed, re-dried – and it was still red. Darker red, but still not brown.
Now, I was a busy person, work, church, grocery-shopping, bill-paying, errands around town, you know the drill. I had no choice but to go out in public. Some folks were kind enough to say they liked it. A few giggled until they saw the set of my jaw.
I let my hair enjoy its redness for a week. This time I bought DARK brown with no red, and this time it did come out brown. Dark brown. Really, really dark brown. Almost black, it was so brown. Oh well, I looked more like my mama. That wasn’t a bad thing, really.
It looked pretty good with my fire-engine red shirts. I thought I might just keep it that way for a while. (And I did… for a while. Story written in 2006.)
* Traditional Scottish folk song, though this video says it’s Irish. Beautiful either way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3rbRX675JE