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By Patricia O’Connor


… In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute

Will reverse…

 T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

It’s 5:48 a.m. I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. It’s been five weeks, two weeks past a reasonable deadline. I have to make a decision. It’s the same decision I make every month or so. Oh, do not ask what is it? Let us go and pay a visit…

I once disdained women like me. I considered them weak, vain, emotionally stunted. I have always been of the opinion that it is what’s inside your head that matters, not what’s on top of it.  Yet here I stand beneath the harsh, unforgiving light above the vanity mirror, ready to take stock. I ask myself, do I really want to dye? Again?

You have to understand: I had given myself a deadline. I was going to stop pretending that I’m a youthful, perky brunette sometime around, say, age 40. Okay, 45. But today, I am 50. I started coloring my hair when I was 30, when I could honestly say I was prematurely graying. Surely, I thought then, in ten years—15 at the outside—I’d be self-actualized, emotionally mature and self-confident enough to embrace my gray.

But, it’s the other part of me that generally wins these mirror-side debates. This self has never known me as anything other than brunette: brown bangs over blue eyes. Who would I be if I were (honestly) gray? When others look at me, who would they see? I think of poor defeated J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot’s anti-hero who in the course of a single poem ages from an awkward young man skirting the edges of high society to a weakened old would-have-been walking along the lonely beach, daring not even to eat a peach. In the course of a radical hairectomy, would I too be transformed, like poor J. Alfred, and become, among other things, intimidated by fruit?

Other women, more content and far more powerful than I, have accepted their silver with grace. I watch for them in grocery stores, coffee houses, and playgrounds: Dignified older women with pink cheeks to offset their silver. Intellectual women bent over books, wearing black wire-rimmed glasses that contrast with the pewter in their curls. Earth Mothers in Birkenstocks, 100 percent cotton clothing and long, loose hemp-gray braids. Lean, athletic women with their practical ponytails a-swoosh with white. So different from each other, and yet these women seem to share a kind of wisdom, or at least an acceptance, that I have yet to reach. To me, they are bastions of integrity. They seem to dare you to look beneath the surface, or in this case, the hairline, to drink in their pink cheeks, firm chins, strong characters. If you’re stopped by the salt in their pepper, they seem to say, you’re not worth your salt.

I want to be just like them. And I don’t want to be gray.

I know that time will come for me when I am finally at peace with my age, my face, myself. I will cut off the hair I’ve waited so patiently to grow out, let the white roots become wiry, white spikes, and then we will see who is who.

The question is, is today that day?

It’s not that simple.  This isn’t just about me. I dye for others.

*   *   *

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

I think of my 14-year-old daughter, Katie. Of course, I was dying my hair long before she was born. Even during my pregnancy, I pleaded with my midwife to let me color my hair. I used natural facsimiles throughout the slow and queasy first trimester. Day one of week 13, I broke the seal on my trusty box of L’Oréal. My daughter was born to a brunette mother.

A brunette mother shepherded her to preschool, cut up apples and partitioned graham crackers for her classmates, sat cross-legged (she can’t be gray, she’s still limber) in story circle. A brunette mother escorted Katie to kindergarten, first grade, second. I didn’t want to admit that while other mothers were pushing 25, maybe 35, I was cresting 45. Maybe there were other mothers of third, fourth, or fifth graders who had a touch of silver at the temples, but few were white from brow to nape as I suspect I was.  How embarrassing, I reasoned, it might have been for my poor Katie if those other, younger mothers were to ask, “Who is this nice older lady who picks you up every afternoon?”  It doesn’t seem to traumatize my daughter even now when she witnesses her mom’s hair going from BROWN to soft brown to hazy brown to are-those-highlights to what-color-is-that-anyway to BROWN again, just so long as Mom isn’t gray.

Katie likes to inspect my hair after I’ve colored it, poking through the undergrowth like a baby chimpanzee grooming her mother. “You missed a spot,” she’ll inform me, but usually it’s an area in the back where most people wouldn’t see. She likes being part of this color conspiracy. I wonder what I’m teaching her about her own appearance.  I tell her to embrace who she is as she is, but how credible am I? My girl is so beautiful, although she can’t seem to see it. Her blue-green eyes are bright and full of energy. Her smile is infectious. And her long hair is a soft brown with golden highlights. I know many women who would pay big money for her hair color. (I color my hair on the cheap. At least I’m teaching her frugality.) Recently, she informed me that she wants to dye her hair colors that wouldn’t pass dress code at her school: purple, teal, or jet black.

Maybe it is just human to want to manipulate nature. As I walk across the community college campus where I teach, I notice the 18- to 22- year-old women who dye their hair: Peroxide blondes streaked with black, blue or red. Mahogany brunettes striped with hot pink or yellow highlights, and the striking, lean woman with the cut biceps and spiky tomato red hair. I march north, trying to look natural, while women half my age glide south trying to look preternatural.

Lately, I’ve noticed the co-eds who dye the top layer of their hair gray, the color of cobwebs, so that their natural color peaks through—a reverse two-tone. Of course, on them, it looks good. The undeniable luminosity of youth can’t be hidden by dyes, cosmetics, or even zits.. I watch these girls now with their hanks of cobweb and wonder if at the root of it all—beneath the ageless desire each generation has to separate itself from the last, beneath the youthful need to make a statement, make an impact, or at least make friends—if the gray across the crown might be an attempt to dim what might otherwise be an unbearable light.

I speak for women my age . We want it back. We took that luminosity for granted when we had it, and now we’ll pay Estée Lauder or Mary Kay whatever they want to return what had once been ours for free. Age-defying, wrinkle-concealing, lip-swelling, color-enhancing, gray-covering—it’s like we’re trying to Photoshop our features, or worse, take a Thorton Wilderesque trip back in time. If we could only have that skin, that hair, those long, firm arms again, even for a brief moment, this time we’d appreciate them. More accurately, perhaps we’d appreciate ourselves and the personal power cut biceps imply.

Most of Katie’s friends don’t realize I’m that much older than their mothers.  It is not my face that gives me away. I don’t have wrinkles, per se, although, my jaw line is beginning to appear a bit jowly, and my eyes—once my most dramatic and attractive feature—are more sunken than they once were. Still, I would like to think I have the face of a woman closer to 40 than 50. When my hair is correspondingly youthful, I can almost convince myself, if not others, that I’m 39 and holding.

They say 50 is the new 30, but that doesn’t mean 60 is the new 40, or that it should be. Go too far with this dyeing thing and you begin to look kind of pathetic—a modern-day Miss Havisham clinging desperately to Lady Clairol’s veil. This is not the person I want to be, nor is it the person I want my daughter to see.

When Katie was 10, I asked her what she would think if I just went gray.

“No! Don’t do it, Mom,” she said. She looked at me as if I had asked what she’d think of me turning myself into a flying squirrel. “That would be disgusting.”

“What about when I’m 89?” I asked.

“Not when your 90 or 332,” she said and sat on my lap. She stroked my hair with one hand.  “I don’t want you to be old.”

A child’s world view: gray = old. To her, this means that as long as I color my hair I will not age. This is the sort of magical thinking that keeps Lady Clairol in the black. It’s also what keeps me hooked: as long as I don’t look 53 to her 15, or 56 to her 19, maybe Katie and I will remain close, the way we are now, the way I wasn’t with my mother when I believed she was a hoary, white-haired relic and she knew for certain I was a snarky, foul-mouthed teen. Of course, snark happens no matter what.  And Katie will have to find her own way of being in the world, apart from me.  In a few years, it will be she who glides away through a college campus, perhaps with hair the color of cantaloupe and raspberries. Still, there is a small part of me that half believes that if I can remain the brunette mother Katie has always known, she will remain the sweet, unaffected girl she has always been. I want Katie to be comfortable with who she is. But how can I model self-acceptance if I continue to hide my gray hair in shame. You don’t need to tell me, I know:  Too much is riding on Medium Brown # 5.

*   *   *

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a white spot in the middle of my hair—

And so I spin, twisted and knotted. The face in the mirror appears strained and not a little frumpy. My eyes are still puffy with sleep. Pillow creases still mark my cheek. But there is more to it. I look deeply tired, the kind of tired a hot shower and a cup of coffee can’t fix.

Mentally, I flash through all the self-help tips I’ve scanned in back issues of More, O Magazine, or Health that clutter my stylist’s salon. I could take up yoga or meditation. I could do that variable-speed walking thing. I could drink green tea and eat more fiber.  I really should lose 10 pounds. Maybe 15. Okay, 30. But, to do so would require months of self-discipline and denial.

Or, I could dye my hair.

In the course of 45 smelly minutes, I could appear—if not svelte and strong—alert and maybe even pretty. I would feel instantly better about myself. Isn’t that worth $9.99? Dyeing is cheaper than therapy.

I fumble in the bathroom cabinet for the box. I always have at least one stashed in the back, in case of a color emergency.  I know what to do:  I’ll pull on the vinyl gloves; pierce the colorant tube with the rapier tip embedded in the cap, mix colorant with developer. Shake. I will fill the bathroom with those familiar fumes, press the pointy plastic applicator against my scalp and squeeze.

I set the box on the counter unopened.

Deciding shouldn’t be this hard, but it almost always is. If there weren’t carpools to drive, lunches to pack, papers to grade, I might stand before this mirror forever and never be sure.

To be fair, I haven’t given gray a chance.  Facing the mirror, I pull back my hair on either side of my part. Silvery roots shine like a path of moonlight through a dark sea. In a moment, my eyes, once bright, become sunken; my skin appears sallow. Freckles darken into age spots. I grow old…I grow old…

I am a Lady J. Prufrock, paralyzed by indecision, eviscerated by fear, aging at exponential speed in the glass. Opportunities I once considered but never seized flash before me. Each retreating possibility leaves a bitter residue like dust, white, across my crown. I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.

I release my hair as if it’s on fire. It springs up, and with it seemingly do my features. Eyes brighten, double chin recedes, freckles—yes, they are definitely freckles— lighten.

Not yet, not yet, not yet, I chant quietly.

I may be getting older, but I am not yet old. Neither am I the frightened 20-something, or hesitant 30-something woman I once was. If my midwife was right about women who give birth after age 35, I may well live into my 90s, or even to 100. I have years, years, for visions and revisions of the person I wish to be. And, frankly, Lady Clairol and friends, you have nothing to do with it.

And yet, Lady, you have everything to do with it.  Hair color, I realize, is not just a crutch, it is a talisman. I keep a box of dye in my bathroom cabinet for the same reason monks in the Middle Ages kept skulls above the tables where they illuminated holy texts: It reminds me of my mortality. It reminds me that the moment is fleeting and precious. Eventually, the color will fade; the skull will remain. Is this all? I want to turn Prufock upside down, spin him on his shiny, balding pate:

[It would] have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead…

All I can tell is that I do not wish to be a Prufrock, to play time’s passive victim. Unlike poor, paralyzed Alfred, I must choose and choose and choose.

Today, I choose to dye. Quietly, I turn the lock on the bathroom door and break the seal on the box. Once again, I engage in my own private alchemy. I start to hum. I can almost hear the mermaids sing along.

Patricia O’Connor tries to lead a colorful life in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she lives with her husband Jeff and daughter Kate. Patricia teaches English full time at Central New Mexico Community College. In her spare time, she writes, sings, travels and goofs around with her family.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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