Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 4, 2011
I am standing, scissors in hand, poised and inches away from my sister’s thick hardly-gray-even-though-she’s-ten-years-older tresses, thinking about gene puddles and the great wagon wheel of karma.
Joelle and I, though we have identical voice registries and laugh at the same time at the same jokes, look not only dissimilar, but as if we’re from different hemispheres. I’m from my dad’s Scotto-Iro-Anglo, freckled, digestion-sensitive half of the family, and she’s from my mother’s French-Moorish, olive-skinned, good-haired side.
When, as a pre-teen, I was getting summer sunburns (in Seattle!) building wood replicas of hydroplanes like Miss Bardahl and Miss Budweiser with my friends, she, the teenager, was lying out on the upper deck using Johnson’s Baby Oil, browning herself to perfection for every one of the beautiful boyfriends I was secretly in love with. Joelle, with her thick, wavy black hair and dark skin, at any time might have been mistaken for a world citizen – Turkish or Mexican or Iranian or Greek. Me? I had a guy come up to me on a Manhattan street once and ask me if I was Irish or Chinese, and when I reluctantly told him I was half French he rubbed his greasy chin and told me that that made sense.
What kind of sense did it make? Did it matter he’d just exited Off Track Betting and I had headphones on and had to remove them to hear what he obviously felt was important enough to interrupt me, a complete stranger, for? What compels someone to demand to know where a face – or hair – comes from? Every face, it seems – with its kaleidoscopic mish mash — may not launch a thousand ships but certainly a thousand questions. It does in my family, anyway.
My father was quirky about hair. Joelle had to wait until she was twelve to have it cut, but was instantly offered an outlandish sum for the fifteen inches being held up by the beautician like a shimmery fish. I was allowed to have mine cut at age eight and still have my braids from that very day. Joelle was given a big-girl bob appropriate for 1960. Me? A pixie, inappropriate for any year, including 1966. A haircut so short that I’m mistaken for a boy and called Michael at third grade roll call. “It’ll grow,” says my mother casually, my mother, whose brushed black hair is one of the furling and unfurling flags that has captured my dad. Who on earth will a pixie cut ever capture?
Flash forward to the present moment. My sister has just had her hair butchered by a sleepwalker holding shears in a shopping-mall chain, and then gone on to Penney’s Salon for remedial work — bad choices made by someone who has never feared for the shape her filamentous biomaterial will – or will not — take.
“Did you want so much cut?” asks her son, Jeremy, who has had every haircut on earth, including dreads (as a rapper in Beijing) and now a buzz cut (as Chinese language specialist in the army).
“I went in for a trim–” she insists, as I rake my fingers through a baffling sort of hirsute luxuriance. Her hair was long and now it’s long-short, a wildly lopsided quasi-mullet, six inches on one side of her head and about three and a half on the other.
“It’ll grow,” it’s Jeremy’s turn to say, while his wife, a slight, very hip Korean woman, looks on. “I don’t think it’s so bad,” June says with so much conviction everyone feels better for a second, then somehow worse. June Lee has straight black hair that looks fantastic short and long and probably even long-short.
“How do you even know how to cut hair?” My daughter, who got my hair and not her father’s (thick, wavy hair she knows full well I’d always cut), continues to hold this against me. It’s tense as small increments of her aunt’s genetically superior hair fall to the floor.
There is no choice, at this point, but for me to retell the Story of the Perm. The one Joelle gives me at seventeen. The one she leaves in way, way too long, thinking it won’t take on my shoulder-length, baby-fine locks. The one that takes well enough to leave me with a 70’s Afro so extensive and so tight there’s no getting a cake cutter – let alone a comb —through it. The one her Danish beautician friend takes one saucer-eyed look at before saying “Oh my.” And then deftly cuts right back to that third-grade length.
We all laugh.
In a game of karma wheel, family tree and scissors, doesn’t scissors win over family tree? I do a little Edward Scissorhands clicking next to Joelle’s ear as I ponder our far-flung features, our pale to dark eyes, our freckles and tans, our thin to thick manes, our voices, and our vanities that sometimes require a bit more pruning than our precious hair.