During the summer of 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Richard Nixon was nominated, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series, and I got my hair cut.
In retrospect, a trip to the beauty salon doesn’t qualify as very important in comparison to other world events. But I was 12 years old, and other than occasional trimming of split ends, my last real haircut was before I started kindergarten. I had been lobbying - pestering, cajoling, and bargaining - to get my hair cut throughout the entirety of 6th grade. Finally, my parents conceded. But the hair cut had a price - before I got the chin length bob I wanted so badly, I had to sit for a formal photograph featuring my dark, thick, wavy, waist length hair.
Although I despised having my picture taken in any form or fashion, I was desperate enough to agree to their terms. Our local Montgomery Ward department store had a photography studio, and touted their ability to “make a photograph look like an oil painting.” I endured the sheer torture of 30 minutes of being posed and shifted and urged to “tilt my head to the right,” “lift my chin slightly to the left,” “put my right hand on top of my left,” “sit very still.”
It took a week or so for the proofs to come back (remember when photography wasn’t digital or instant??) When they did, and my parents finally chose the pose they liked the most, the touch up artists went to work. The finished project delighted everyone involved - well, at least the adults. In fact, the studio was so pleased with the results, they asked if they could put the picture in the store window display for a week to advertise their studio.
By now, the price of this much desired haircut felt almost too dear. My portrait in the store window? All my friends and their families shopped here. I was about to enter junior high school. Would my new, presumably cool classmates see my portrait when they came shopping for their summer tennis shoes and shorts and remember the dorky girl with the long hair whose picture was in the Montgomery Wards window? Would my career as a cool teenager be over before it ever began? Would my coveted haircut make no difference in my ability to appear sophisticated instead of babyish?
I’d come this far, however, so I decided to shut up and see the thing through. The portrait was tastefully displayed - along with several others, and I had to admit it was rather fun to have my likeness in the window. My mother finally took me to the hair salon where she cried while I gleefully watched five inches of hair fall in clusters on the floor, knowing I’d never again have to endure hours of wet hair or curlers or brushing out tangles. I felt 10 pounds lighter, and at least five years older with my new haircut. Watch out ninth graders, I’m coming for you.
Not surprisingly, the short hair cut did not solve all my hair problems. It was still too thick and wavy for my taste, so I took to wrapping it around my head and taping it down with pink hair tape. Even so, at the slightest touch of humidity it would spring into frizzy curls, completely destroying any hope of the straight, stringy, Twiggy-like hair I wanted so desperately.
It took several decades for me to make peace with my overly thick and wavy hair. As I grew into my forties and fifties, I was happy to let my hair do it’s own thing. Like me, it had settled comfortably into its own style, and stopped trying so hard to impress other people. The older I got, the easier it became to care for, holding its style for three or four days in a row with just a quick fluff from the hair dryer.
I share this story because something has changed. The thick hair I once grabbed by a handful is now so thin I can barely work my fingers into it. I place my hands on top of my head several times a day, much as you worry a tooth that begins to ache, and almost gasp in horror. Whose head is this? I ask myself. What is happening? I Google thinning hair, I have my thyroid checked, I buy volumizing shampoos.
Finally I accept that This is Me At 63, realizing once again the lesson aging teaches us so well - you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Like those 2 inches I’ve lost to osteoporosis, and now the thick wavy hair that seems to have disappeared into the ether, time takes its toll and there’s precious little we can do to control it.
Loss seems to be the theme for this year, not just for me but for so many of my friends who are facing illness and life changes. There’s a deeper sense of loss in our wider world too - the loss of safety, civility, freedoms, and even hope for the future.
My thinning hair is a good reminder to appreciate and enjoy what’s left to me while I still have it. There is much of that too, and I am grateful for it.