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I earned these whites

At eighteen I found my first gray hair. I was looking in the mirror, before leaving for school, and there it was. One long wiry white frizz strand standing atop my head. This hair was not even trying to group with the rest of the tangled brown chunky curls, nor did she allow herself to get wrangled by the bobbies pinned to my head. Nope, not her. She stood front and center, just above my hairline, like one of those plastic air blow-up figures they have outside the car dealership, waving about, to the left of my middle part.

One unruly, untamable hair. One wild crone, mocking me.

It didn’t surprise me, going gray at such a young age, not even back then. See, I was a serious kid. The steady, dependable, unbreakable stonewall. The teacher’s pet, the one who carried the family secrets, the youngest daughter of three who would circle my mother and sisters up for our come-to-Jesus make-up session after one of our raging fist fights.

“What the fuck?” I said, as I twirled that white hair around my pointer finger, “Absolutely not!” and plucked her right out!

I thought I was the boss.

But she was much smarter than me. Wiser than me, you see. Witchier.

Within a month there were two whites where the one once stood.

By twenty-two, there was already so much salt to my pepper, I started coloring my hair. Like clockwork, on the third Thursday of every month, the same day I started my period, I’d open the box of Clairol Nice-n-Easy #4, Dark Dark Brown, and slop it over my roots. I’d leave the dye to marinate five to seven minutes longer than the box instructed, just to be sure.

But they were tough, those white hairs. Brooklyn-tough hairs. Stubborn. Even more stubborn than I am, and I am a Taurus.

When I was thirty-one and pregnant with my son, my home-birth midwife gave me a list of “Do not do’s” during pregnancy, and coloring my hair was near the top of the list—after booze, gooey cheeses (my favorites!), and sushi. Damn. But I was determined, and slick. I found my way around the warning. I found Henna at the health food store.

Sure, it gave me dull reddish tone that was far from natural looking, but it worked. Kind of.

By my late thirties the box just no longer cut it. My hair was so many colors, black, brown—light and dark—speckles of gray, so worn, brassy and tired, it was time to call in the professionals. I scheduled out six months ahead of the clock with my hairdresser, appointments every three weeks. The weeks in between, mascara did the trick.

Except for the days at the beach, that is. But isn’t that what a beach hat is for?

Jesus, $120, every three weeks. For well over a decade. That’s practically a college education. Practically enough to put a down payment on a house, for fuck’s sake. Well, maybe not on Martha’s Vineyard, but in Texas or Arkansas it is.

In May of 2020, I turned fifty. What better time to grow out my whites than during a global pandemic? We were all home anyway. Not to mention wearing masks when we went out.

I joined all the Facebook groups— “Growing Grey Gracefully”, “Grombre”, “Silver Sisters”. I made a point to like every post. I commented, admiring the women for going for it, for being brave.

I promised myself I would try. I did try, but I failed. I just couldn’t do it.

When I was a kid, back when we lived in Brooklyn, I used to go with Mom to get her hair cut by a woman named Debbie Leoni. Debbie forever tried to convince Mom to dye her grays. She used to say, in her thick Italian accent, “How you gonna meet a man lookin’ like that? You-a-beautiful lady, but you starting to lookin-like-a-gramma!”

Mom would laugh it off, but she wouldn’t budge. She’d say “Not today, Debbie. I earned these white hairs!” then roll her eyes and nod her head in my direction.

I didn’t love that Mom blamed her whites on me, but I agreed with her, she didn’t need to color her hair. She collected them raising three daughters alone with no husband to speak of. No child support— financially or otherwise— and we were a handful. But my mother was one of those fierce, independent New York City broads, a fighter, born to raise both of her bangled arms in the air. She raised her voice for Women’s Liberation and raised her fist for the Black Panthers, later she raised us on occasional food stamps, a dime, a late night cry and a prayer.

I loved her hair. I, still, love her hair. Everyone does. It is her signature look. It perfectly frames her brown face and her strong German-Jew nose like an arbor, curls matching the silver studs that arc up her earlobes. And when the wind blows, her whites whip around her head, filling her aura, like a lion’s mane. In those lazy summer afternoons, back in the 1970’s, when Mom, my sisters and I would hop the subway to Brighton Beach, spend the whole damn day tumbling in the waves, and afterwards get chocolate-vanilla twist soft serves with sprinkles on the boardwalk, with bathing suit crotches full of sand, my mother’s wet hair clumped into metallic ringlets that dripped down her bronzed boney shoulders.

No, Debbie, she didn’t need to color her hair.

Three months ago, I was in New York City to be with her, my now eighty five year old mother, during her chemotherapy treatment. On our slow walk to the hospital, as I helped her navigate the potholed streets of Chelsea, every crack in the sidewalk a threat, we finally talked about what we had all been avoiding talking about— her end of life care. She said she was worried about her cats Hank and Sam. She didn’t want them to be put in a shelter. I told her not to worry, I said “Jevon and I will take the cats.”

She said she was worried about losing her hair.

When we got to Mount Sinai, I wasn’t allowed inside, because, well, pandemic rules, so I saw her off at the entrance. As she walked through the hospital’s sliding glass doors alone, so tiny, with rounded shoulders and a cough that won’t quit, I noticed all the long, white, curly strands of her hair that had fallen out on the back of her black wool coat.

When Mom got diagnosed with lung cancer last year, I promised myself I’d do the right thing. I knew above all else, I did not want to have any regrets. I promised I’d make the best of the time we had. Laugh together. Go to concerts. Drink lots of coffee. I promised myself I’d forgive her, and forgive myself, despite it all.

Today, I’m ten weeks into growing out my whites. I’ll admit, I’m not doing silver sisters so gracefully. Some days, I can barely look in the mirror. I keep the bathroom light off when I get up in the middle of the night to pee, which happens twice, sometimes three times a night, now that I no longer get my period.

My twenty year old son says, “Roll with it, Mom. You look beautiful. Badass. Anyway, no one cares if you have white hair.”

Of course, he’s right. No one cares but me.

My husband Jevon has been walking around for over a month with a missing front tooth (hockey, don't ask), and with confidence! I admire the man’s ability to not to give one fuck about what other’s might think about the gap in his mouth.

Why do men get free societal passes to age with integrity?

And here we women are, injecting ourselves with Botox, suffering bootcamps, and dyeing our well-earned whites.

While we hold up the entire world.

My friends who have gone natural look fabulous. They say they feel even better than they look. “Do it Girl!” They nudge me, “It’ll only take a year or two. It’ll be freeing, you’ll see!”

I bet it will. I know it will free me.

I know once it’s grown in, and when the last bit of brown—the remaining residue of my first fifty some odd years of life—has been trimmed off the ends, and I’m layered in white wild curls, I’ll probably Crone my way through the rest of my life, without giving not one backward glance at my former dark brown-haired self. My only regret, perhaps, being all the money, time, and energy that I spent coloring my hair.

So what if the crows have nested by my eyes? These eyes have seen sunrises and sunsets, foreign lands. They’ve seen into the souls of so many tender humans. And who cares if my lips now crinkle when I speak. These lips have sung lullabies, whispered sweet nothings, they have kissed the back of many necks. Does it really matter if the skin around my knees is starting to sag, or if my hair is white?

I’m growing my hair out for my younger self and for the future me too. I’m growing it for my mother.

I stand in the mirror and twirl a coven of white curls around my pointer finger and say, “Absolutely, fuck yes!”

I can’t promise I won’t fall off the wagon and color it again. I might. But for now, I’m letting the grays grow in.

I earned these whites. I earned this crown.

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