Sunday, March 31, 2013

Hair and old age

I knew my grandmother was old-fashioned. Emma Hoppensack Patterson knew how to tat lace and make large hats with velvet ribbons and feathers. However, since she lived until the venerable age of 96 (she died in 1987), I think of her as a child of the 20th century. (This photo of her was taken around 1920.) It surprises me, therefore, when I come across habits of hers that dated back even further.

For instance, her leather hair curlers. My grandmother used to curl her hair with odd, leather-coated wires like the ones pictured on the left. Even as a child, I realized they were old-fashioned, but I didn't realize they dated back to hair curling methods of the 1800s.

My grandmother set her own hair every week until she couldn't manage it anymore.

"It's getting harder and harder," she confided to me as she neared her 90th year. "I have to hold my hands over my head for so long, my fingers start to cramp. And my strength is going. I can hardly twist the wires."

The other day, my mother-in-law Gen told me how "an older woman's thing is to go have her hair done every week." At first glance, one might consider this ritual a luxury, a way to pamper oneself in old age by letting someone else fuss over your hair.

But then I remember my grandmother, how she struggled to keep going as long as she could, how the weekly salon visits might just be a necessary adjustment to the realities of growing old.