Sunday, September 9, 2007

Grandmother's braid

Grandmother Patterson was a tiny woman who wore demure outfits complete with matching pocketbooks, thick-heeled black shoes, and old-lady hair. Her hair was in no way remarkable; as a little girl, I was more intrigued by the hairnet holding it in place. She'd confide to me from time to time that she wasn't always so old, and perhaps she even noticed my skepticism. But probably not--when she'd warm up to a story, her gaze would turn inward, backward, to her childhood in Cleveland's heyday, to the dawn of the 20th century. She'd repeat her stories over and over, about making dresses with her sister Olga, about staging grand weddings as a kind of game in the house entry hall, about the ribbons they'd used to make splendid hats.

"In those days, I had so much hair the braid was as thick as my wrist," she'd tell me, circling her papery, blue-veined wrist with her gnarled thumb and forefinger. "It had never been cut--not my whole life, so when I let it out, it fell well below my waist. I always wore it up in one long braid that I'd fasten over my head, like so!" and she'd pantomime winding it, tucking it in at the back where the wispy gray hairs were always straying from the net.

Then she'd pull out her photo album to prove it to me (perhaps she'd noticed my skepticism, after all), showing me pictures of herself then, her dark, sepia-tinted eyes staring out at me, her braid circled over the top of her head like a crown. As we sat on her couch together, the photo album cracked open across our laps, she'd tell me the story of how she'd lost all her hair.

It was during childbirth, her first and last pregnancy. My father was supposed to be a Christmas baby, but it wasn't until late January of 1923 that she finally went into labor. According to Grandmother, the labor was long and difficult, but still the baby didn't come. In the end, they'd taken it C-section, a procedure much less common in those days.

"He was ten pounds!" She'd tell me, her serious German eyes blinking with concern, like it worried her still that something so freakish could happen. "I was so very sick after Clyde was born that I lost all my hair. I would run my hands through it and it came out by the fistful. I cried and cried. My beautiful hair, all of it gone. They told me I almost died. My mother sewed me this little silk cap that I wore for months until it finally grew back. But it was never the same after that."

I was her only granddaughter, and while Grandmother also confided in my two brothers, I think she told me stories of her girlhood more often. It was something precious we shared, being girls, an appreciation of the finer things in life, of cooking and sewing, of keeping house. It was very hard on her that I didn't know how to properly be a girl. From an early age, I didn't like to play dress up, I didn't care much for dolls, I shunned the color pink. She was willing to forgive those transgressions, though, as long as she could have me Saturday evenings when my parents went out, to scrub my face and armpits by the sink at bedtime, to dig the soapy warm washcloth in the orifices of my ears, to gently comb out my hair and tuck me into bed.

Although I had no clue of the magnitude of the crime, by this time the unthinkable had already occurred. My mother had, with determined efficiency, cut my hair when I was about three. And for the first decade of my life, I would keep it short. The sad truth of the matter was that I never missed it. Despite my grandmother's dearest wishes, I was a tomboy, tracking mud into the house from the woods and ravines, riding my tricycle recklessly, running pell mell everywhere I went. I'm sure Mom had a good reason the first time she cut my hair--I remember it had something to do with chewing gum. But much later in life, Mom would tell me how Grandmother didn't speak to her afterwards for over a month, and never really did forgive her.

As for me, I was innocent of the grown-ups' drama. My path lay before me, and it wasn't yet time to look back. In my girlhood years, I would be many things: an indian princess, a gazelle, a dancer, a writer. And to be or do any of those things, no matter how challenging, it wouldn't be about the hair.