This weekend my husband found a folder of images on his computer of a trip we took to the east coast about four years ago. Our oldest daughter was three and our youngest was about six months. She was past the honeymoon phase of happy gurgling baby and entering the wailing siren of misery stage that is teething; which for her, and for us, lasted another 12 months. However, this is not about the delights of a twenty-eight hour road trip with a couple kids under the age of four, spearheaded by a raging postpartum wife, and supported by a capitulating but reluctant freelancing husband with a deadline. That’s for another time. This is about the photos of that trip.
My husband pulled up the images and wandered off to cut something with his chop saw. I sat down to peruse. A couple things hit me. First I saw the kids, now a leggy four and half and seven years old, respectively, in their previous incarnations as cherubic, roly-poly toddlers. I looked at their shining faces and at my haggard face and wished I’d been more tender and less sleep-deprived. But then I looked passed the haggard expression and saw something wonderful. Something that is now lost forever.
I saw my dark, shining, uniformly black hair. That’s right. In under four years I went from naively unconcerned about the odd surprising strand of white to nostalgic over pigment that will never, ever come back. Four years from the hair colour I was born with to what I believe is referred to in the business as approaching 30% grey around the temples and quickly colonizing other areas. It varies depending on what part of my head you are viewing. Maybe the back, still looks okay, in a certain dim light. Underneath, by my neck, the original colour remains, precious and hidden. If my hair is wet I can look in the mirror and pretend. But if I pull it back into a ponytail, I am faced with a chubby Morticia Addams.
Why not dye it? I can’t say why not exactly. When my colleagues harangue me, and they do, I cite the maintenance of my fast growing hair. I dread the roots, the constantly whitening roots. Secretly, I worry about losing sight of whatever my real colour is and ending up with that strange orangey-blackish colour that I see old ladies in my neighbourhood sporting. I wonder about not even knowing how white it is; I fear feeling a panicky desperation to keep up the face of my dark hair facade. Before it actually started to turn grey I had some idea that I would be one of those women in stock photos that is white-haired but has great skin and is fit. To reveal how far from this figure I am, let me relate a couple of work anecdotes (for the record I’m a high school art teacher):
1) With insistent knocking at my classroom door during a lesson, I pause, annoyed, mid-sentence to answer. On sight of my lazily unmade-up face, combined with my laissez-faire hair (a look previous to this I considered the sartorial equivalent of “shabby chic”), these words are uttered, “Oh, I’m sorry, are you ok? Are you sick?” Seriously! I stare at my co-worker and say, “No, this is just my face,” and close the door. Then I realise what a missed opportunity, maybe I could have unloaded my class for the afternoon?
2) Another time, at the photocopier someone commiserates about the new job contract and then looks at me conspiratorially and says, “Well, we only have seven or eight years until retirement.” Nope. “Actually, I have about seven-TEEN years!” Cut to his expression of pure horror. I felt like cackling. (Could this be a by-product of the hair-colour change?)
I oscillate between deciding to try a semi-permanent colour and maintaining a stand-off to fuel my crazy fascination with how fast it will turn white. The opinions range — “Leave it; dyeing will ruin the texture.” “Don’t let it happen; you’re in control.” “Do something funky.” Jeez, I almost feel I’d rather be bald than funky.
Finally, what does it matter? Or rather, why does it matter? I can afford to contemplate the situation because in the end it doesn’t really matter. Either way it will not make or break me. All in all, it is my favorite kind of problem. One whose solutions are almost equally supported and whose outcome is negligible. I could consider it endlessly, surveying strangers at parties and boring my husband after the kids are in bed. It keeps me from considering weightier things like climate change and civil unrest, so stay with me as I avoid the hazards of rigorous thinking and instead pursue the origins of my own denial of my mortality…
I have some ideas about why it matters, in the way small vanities do. I think, because it signals something. To me and to others. In this country, the aging of the body can be disguised, in most seasons, through shrewd clothing choices involving spandex content and ever higher waistlines. Not so the aging of the hair. Initially it was not that noticeable but as my temples head north of the 30% grey, it is getting lighter and lighter. It means that although I am not yet geriatric, I am no longer being mistaken for a student in the halls. As my brother says, “It doesn’t look old, but it doesn’t look young.” Somehow that reality pinches in a way that I have never felt before. For now the stand-off continues, for how long I’m not sure. Does it matter? Not really.