Silver, Not Salt
It began predictably enough: the first gray threads I found in my hair when I hit my thirties. The threads soon turned to ribbons, but I had just had a baby (my second) and was in no shape to deal with the gray. Gray was interesting, I reasoned. Gray was subtle, intellectual and hip. Soon enough the baby became a toddler and her older brother started school. I woke up one morning and decided that the gray was neither intellectual nor subtle. Gray was simply old.
I began to plan my campaign. First in my line of attack was a series of home treatments inspired chiefly by antics best suited to a rerun of “I Love Lucy.” There was the Five Minute Color Solution. It worked all right; it just looked like I had looked like I dipped my head in large vat of shoe polish. I dumped the stuff in a hurry and moved on to various mousses and gels that stained the grout in my bathroom shower, more towels and pillowcases than I care to think about and left ominous black drops--squid’s blood? Primordial ooze? —across my dining room floor. It took a while, but I realized that I would need professional help.
So began the round of hair colorists and dyes, the highlights that turned brassy and orange, the dark browns that were ashy and possibly lethal. I switched to henna, which was, I hoped, less toxic, but the two-step process demanded about three hours of my time every six weeks and I grew weary with the upkeep. Still as soon as I saw the gray sprouting at temples and hairline, I would quickly dial up the colorist for my next quick fix.
But all along, there was a soft, subversive voice in my head that said, Why do I have to color my hair? Why is twenty-five the template when I am about to turn fifty? I thought of a woman I saw regularly at my gym: small, strong, with short gray hair, bright blue eyes and very red lipstick, even when she was sweating on the Stairmaster or doing a killer set of squats. I admired her but more than that, I envied her. She wasn’t a slave to the tedium in the colorist’s chair; she owned her age with pride and with panache. I wanted to be like her. And a month or two shy of my fiftieth birthday, I decided that I could. I told my hairdresser that I wanted to toss my box of henna away, and then, as the gray started coming in, I asked her for a short, head hugging crop.
It was a bit shocking at first. My children were upset—there’s so much gray, can’t you fix it?—though my husband, Lord love him, was a fan from the start. Friends and acquaintances that hadn’t seen me in a while went overboard complimenting the new coif.
But most important, I loved it, not only for the way it looked, which I did think was cool, but more for the way it felt: light, fresh, liberated, and, paradoxically younger than I would have imagined. I adopted the red lips of my role model at the gym, and these days, paint on a coat of Chanel’s Fire even to walk the dog. (Hey, I never said I didn’t care about the way I looked; I just got tired of dying my hair as a means of maintaining it.)
In June, I’ll turn 51; it will be a year since I cropped and dropped—the coloring that is. I can imagine doing all sorts of things in the next decade: flying to Paris, with my husband, for our twenty-fifth (appropriately enough, our silver) wedding anniversary. Taking up tennis or tap dancing—maybe both. Writing a new novel, and another one after that. Seeing my son off to college, and my daughter too. But I can’t imagine coloring my hair again; not when I’ve experienced what a blessed relief it was to just up and quit. Forget the salt and pepper—it’s silver, I tell myself. Let it shine.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of the novels “The Four Temperaments” and “In Dahlia’s Wake,” both from Doubleday. She is currently at work on a new novel, tentatively entitled “Jackpot.”
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