Written by our client, Katharyn Howd Machan
CRONING MY HAIR
“You’re a silver fox!” are the first words I hear from my grown daughter as we find each other in the crowd of the JFK terminal. We’re on our way to Athens en route to the Aegean island of Skyros, where we’ll be celebrating the life of British poet Rupert Brooke, buried there 100 years ago. CoraRose, who now lives on a very different island, the long one next to New York City and five hours from central New York State’s Ithaca, has not seen me in several months, since before I stopped dying my hair.
I first encountered the poetry of Rupert Brooke almost 50 years ago, when two wide-minded English teachers at Pleasantville High School (also downstate New York) had me perform it as part of a morning assembly created to raise students’ awareness of the need to end the Vietnam War. How could I possibly have imagined that I would go on to read aloud the same poem at his grave one May morning with a curious black goat as part of my audience?
In 1967 my hair, parted down the exact middle with no bangs to soften my serious brow, hung as far down my back as I could convince it to grow (never very far). Nights I rolled the top of it around a large can I pinned tightly, with the rest of it wrapped around my head and held securely by numerous long strong clips. Any sign of a curl or a wave was an abomination. Several times I even risked ironing it, holding my breath when the steaming metal-edged along my scalp. Spun gold was my fantasy: oh, to look like my svelte classmate Katha who so easily sashayed about the hallways swinging her gleaming waist-length satin! My hair, however? A resolute brown that lightened only infinitesimally under even the fullest summer sun—and which betrayed me with ripples and curves whenever rain fell.
Poetry stayed central to my life, as did the central parting and serious-forehead attempts at straight strands. Belly dance became a passion in my late twenties, only increasing my longing for a cascade of flowing shimmer. Finally a wise hairdresser, halfway through my fourth decade, persuaded me my dreams were dust: snip, shape, cut for bounce, try bangs, scrunch with hands after shampooing to maximize my Goddess-given curls. (It certainly helped that my adored dance teacher Carol had a voluptuous red Celtic tumble of them.) I left the sixties and seventies behind without ever desiring the blown big hair of the eighties.
Motherhood. Middle age (which I declared for myself at 35—as a bit of a joke, I thought). More and more gray hairs (the first I found—in my late twenties—I’d “jokingly” taped into one of my poetry notebooks) until…voila! Hairdresser artistry with brown dye that made me look most “natural.” Highlights, too, for awhile, for that joi-de-vivre-je-ne-sais-quois, well, youthfulness. Madame does not want to become invisible, after all, dismissed by students and colleagues and the general public as OLD. (My beloved husband Eric, fifteen years my junior, who had begun to bald before he turned twenty, had his own song to sing about this situation.) In large part because of the world of belly dance and its call for makeup and vivid costumes, I continued to rely on the artful hands of Debbie at Transformations to disguise my roots and tint my eyebrows.
As I passed 60, I began to think more and more of my father, 59 when I was born and dead when I was 13, whose hair was a beautiful white, as was that of all three of his siblings. Had I inherited Machan locks? My mother, who died in 1985, had kept hers so short since her 1930s NYC-stage-dancer bleached-blond days and her World War II stint in the Women’s Army Corps that the change to almost-no-color gray was hardly noticeable. But would mine also be that mousy hue, inherited from German Sophie Schmelz, as was my brother’s when he died at 55? More and more lines and little saggy places were appearing in my mirror; I didn’t want to look like I was trying to hide my age. I consider myself very fortunate to be alive. I celebrate it. Why not try to be an example of elderly vitality instead of being thought years younger than I am? I ceased the monthly coloring. I don’t yet know if my hair will grow from its current natural hue to the Czech white I hope for, but to my joy it is not settling for drabness.
So when CoraRose saw me in the airport she was startled at first, but her compliment was genuine. I never acquired shining fairy-tale gold satin down to my hips, but now I can toss my head with a different kind of smile. I’m aging and showing it and I won’t let anyone make me feel invisible. I have a new hope for myself: when I’m out in front of people in fuchsia sequins and a belt of coins, playing my polished zills on stage to music by Pangia or below a pomegranate tree on Skyros to some good Greek chiftetelli or with Mirage Belly Dancers on the new Ithaca Commons, I want to hear someone call out in encouragement, “Look at that little silver-haired one go!”
AFTERWORD: Well, with Debbi’s encouragement and artistry, that silver-gray-white has now, as of March 2016, been TRANSFORMED into ripples and waves of turquoise and fuchsia! Zajal the Sugarplum Fairy sure does look like a sweet treat now—ah, Cronedom!