Saturday, November 22, 2008


Ruth is growing my hair, tending it, touching it, encouraging it the way she brings along the flowers on her deck. This is Ruth of the long blonde hair, Ruth of the silky strands, Ruth the gorgeous, Ruth the sleepy riser who would rarely have time for breakfast, always have time for beauty. This is Ruth, whose father used to sit for half an hour, twisting the French braids while her mother did something else, read a book maybe.

Under Ruth’s supervision I am hosting my ever-lengthening hair, trying my best to be welcoming to the unruly tufts at the sides, the errant strands that slide across my face. “Don’t cut your bangs,” warns Ruth. And then, “You’ve been cutting your bangs, haven’t you?” Turning in frustration to a friend she says, “She cuts her hair sometimes.”

Her tone is serious. It makes me think of the people on my counselling caseload who cut their arms for reasons we cannot fathom. But I am not one of these. Cutting my hair is a natural thing. I know why I cut it, to get it out of my eyes.

Hair grows when you don’t cut it. “Your hair is growing,” my friends say in wonder, when it suddenly comes into their awareness. “You must be growing it.” They gaze in wonder. This is not the Wendy they have known.

“Ruth is growing my hair,” I say in return.

“How long is she growing it?” they ask.

“I don’t know,” I say. Then, fishing a little, “How long would you grow it?”

My baiting never catches. “How long do you want it to be?” they always ask. That’s where the conversation ends, possibly because I want it to be short. But if it isn’t short, I want it to be as long as Ruth wants it to be, and she doesn’t exactly know how long that is yet. She has no standard by which to measure it, no memory to which she would return.

My hair has been short for quite some time now. It was long in high school. It was long in university—the first degree. It was long at my wedding. Then I cut it off. I stored the old brush rollers at the back of a very dark cupboard. Gradually my brain recovered from the dulling effects of the piercing of their picks and bristles through my scalp on all those sleepless Sunday nights. I gave the electric rollers to a garage sale. They never really worked as well as the brush rollers. I stored the old hooded hair dryer under the basement stairs, in case I ever had a daughter to need it some day. It has been happy there for many a decade.

A little attention is a powerful thing. Ruth was watching my hair. I was growing it. There was a wedding in our family last summer. “Ruth,” I said, “maybe you could do my hair.” She could hardly refuse, now that there was hair to do. I sat on a chair in my mother’s kitchen while she stood behind me, comb in hand, curling iron blazing. My ears shrank in terror. “Sorry Mom,” she said. “You’ll have to trust me.”

I trusted her. “I’ll have to spray it,” she said. What could I do at that point? I swallowed my environmental concerns, screwed my eyes shut and pinched my nose. I remembered all the times I sat in my mother’s kitchen while Mom stood behind me, doing my hair. They were good memories.

“Ruth and I are growing my hair.” That’s what I almost wrote in the first draft of the annual Christmas letter. Then I deleted it. Something told me it would bring a cry of frustration from Ruth, and maybe she’d tell me to cut it.

Okay, I confess that it is actually me who is growing this hair, growing it for Ruth, and maybe even a bit for me. Her dad used to like it long, though he never pressured me to keep it that way. He’s a practical man. But he still might like it long.

I can always cut it off, I tell myself, or, even better, get somebody else to cut it. And, as long as I don’t have to spend another Sunday night lying awake on brush rollers, I think I’ll just celebrate this time of noticing that I am still capable of change.

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