In the late nineties my baby and I waited at the corner of Euclid for my husband to get out of class at UC Berkeley so we could go to dinner when a beautiful young woman walked towards us down Hearst Avenue. We were about the same age, twenty-seven or twenty-eight. She wore a plaid skirt and tweed jacket like somebody out of The Paper Chase and her long hair was shot with gray.
I stood amazed, fraught with jealousy, horrified. By the time she passed us without even a smile for the baby, I had constructed an entire mythology surrounding her. She was a PhD candidate in literature. She was an accomplished novelist before the age of thirty. Her drink was whiskey on the rocks.
About her hair I thought, I could never be that brave.
My first grays sprouted when I was thirteen, before my first menstrual period. I plucked and examined the errant strands that were thick as wires and pure white. By age eighteen I hennaed every six weeks, graduating to synthetic dyes in reds, blacks, browns. My hair grows fast and I had three weeks of grace before the roots grew in coarse and gray at the part, betraying the truth of my head.
Amber Shimmer, Golden Brown, Suede, Tea, Cinnamon Stick, Navajo Bronze. I tried them all, snapping on latex gloves and creating an expensive boxful of plastic and chemical waste for the landfill every month.
Yet it wasn’t the bother or the expense, or even the monthly environmental catastrophe that urged me to quit dyeing my hair five years ago. It was vanity. Someone took my picture as I brought my daughter’s birthday cake out of the kitchen and in the candlelight glowed a bald patch where my bangs used to be. I knew my hair was thinning, but I didn’t expect a dark lock of hair poking out of an acre of pale scalp.
I quit dyeing my hair. I didn’t cut it short, I didn’t bleach it first. I didn’t streak it with strategic highlights. I just quit and let it go.
At first, it was sloppy-looking. I was a woman too lazy to look after the details. Then the swath of gray turned to a solid two inches. Three inches. I was a madwoman. A woman befallen upon apocalyptic times.
Then it grew to my ears, the auburn and brown of the dyed part falling below my shoulders. I rarely had it cut in the two years that it grew. Before the last of the dyed hair fell to the Great Clips floor at the end of a trimming, I was a fairy tale creature, hair growing in metal strands before crossing the border into a synthetic red growing brassier and brassier.
My students had opinions:
Mrs. Wanket, you look like a mermaid.
You look like an angel.
You look like a fairy.
Mrs. Wanket, please dye your hair.
My mother suggested I invest in a wig.
My husband was relieved. I always let my hair go during pregnancy, and he liked the natural gray, white and silver.
With this gray hair, there is no pretending that I fit the standard of Mom pretty of most of the women in my circle. I never did, but my gray hair says I am not even trying.
Not exactly a magnet for random catcalls in the past, I never hear them now. I sometimes hear oblique offers to get me in touch with a stylist. I suppose it is uncomfortable for some that I let the curtain fall away on the ruse. I was the only one at my twenty-fifth high school reunion with gray hair.
I get called wise since my hair has been totally gray. Even one of my professors in my graduate program remarked that he thought I was very wise. It’s as though my gray hair conferred me with an honorary degree.
I’m not disagreeing that I’m wise. It’s just that I am no wiser than I was at Warm Golden Auburn or Strawberry Sunset Shimmer.
The most common remark is that I am brave to let my hair go gray. As though my hair might one day spontaneously combust, or conspire to murder me in my sleep. Does it take bravery to fall away completely from a beauty standard I wasn’t fitting anyway? Perhaps I am brave to admit that I am aging.
I’m not married to a monster who requires a young looking wife to keep him around, and even if I was, I’m not sure hair color is achieving quite the sleight of hand that people think it is. When my hair was reddish brown, I did not look perpetually twenty-seven. I looked like a woman who, despite yoga, workouts, drinks of water and good nutrition and dental care, was getting older.
I’m forty-five years old. I will never lie about my age, I never have. How ungrateful that seems. Every damn day has been a gift and since the age of nineteen I’ve known for a stone cold fact that not a single one is guaranteed. I would never deny a second of the time I’ve had. Besides, I wasn’t a particularly happy young person. Twenty-seven was okay. Forty-five is much better.
Sometimes I think of that saucy academic on Hearst Avenue, walking down the street in her tweed and plaid, smiling at some mysterious thing she was thinking.
How wise she was. How brave.