Big Hair

May 17, 2020,  Sitka Alaska

I come from a family of big hair.  I was reminded of this after my Aunt Janice died at age 96.  In the statistics she was just another old person who died in a nursing home of COVID-19.  But she was a keystone member of our family.  Aunt Janice was the keeper of family stories.  There’s an old African saying “When and old woman dies, a library burns to the ground.”  I took it on myself to try to recover as much of that library as I could.  Last summer when Aunt Janice put herself into a nursing home, she had the family papers and photos sent to me.  In November Suzi and I went out to visit.  I got another box of family memorabilia and heard some of the stories one last time. 

So, when she died, I started scanning pictures, documents and photographing memorabilia and posting them on a family Facebook page, a virtual wake, that brought members of the family together to recount stories, post their own pictures and reintroduce ourselves to each other. 

None of the cousins knew our grandmother Mabel, or as she signed her name Mabelle.  She had been an actress before marrying.  She died of a stroke when pop was a teenager, standing at the kitchen sink.  I found some pictures of her and posted them.  Some of the cousins had never seen pics of her before and the one thing we all noticed was noticed was her hair.  It was tick, curly and beautiful.  My first reaction was “Grandma had dreads”  She had big hair that she passed on to her children.

Here is the gallery of her four sons.  All with prodigious hair as young men.  You can see from the picture of Aunt Janice, above that she also had thick and naturally curly hair.

And that was my problem.  While I inherited thick hair, it is not curly and barely has a wave.  But more the problem, it covered MORE of my head than did Pop’s or any of his brothers’ hair.  So, while they had hair they could make stand up and fall backwards, or wave and flow in bouffants that piled on top.  My hair just laid there, or even worse, fell into my eyes.  I had natural bangs, but McClear men (or boys) did not have bangs.  From Pop’s perspective, every day was a bad hair day for me.

My father tried every type of wax, grease, or oil on my hair.  I would go off to school with it slicked back and come home with it in my eyes — my glasses smeared with grease.  Sometimes pop would see me when he got home from work and say that, either I looked like a sheep dog, or if the forelock fell in a certain way, like Hitler. 

So, pop decided to “train” my hair.  He got one of mom’s runny nylons and every evening he would hold my hair back and apply the nylon to the top of my head, peeling it on front to back and I had to watch TV, study and sleep with it.  Some nights it gave me  headache, but I wanted to please pop.  He, more than once, told me he wanted me to look like Uncle Donald.  He always carried a picture of his late brother, killed in WWII, in his wallet.  I could look at it to get the idea.  When I woke up and peeled off the stocking I looked like a porcupine.  Hair straight up in the air.  It had, temporarily been trained not to fall forward, now it had to be tamed with grease, wax amd oil to flow backward.   But by the time I got home it was in my eyes. 

At some point, to my relief, pop gave up,  He let me get get a “butch,” a short haircut with just a little bit in the front to which I could apply a wax stick to stand it up straight,  It was short enough not to get into my eyes.

As I got older my hairline did retreat — a little — and, finally, in my mid 60s, I could get my hair to comb back and not fall into my eyes.  By then pop was gone.  But before he died, we had one other hair issue.

In my 40’s I developed a stripe of white hair in the front and started graying at the temples.  Mom thought it looked distinguished.  Pop was having none of it.  He had been coloring his hair to hide the gray and could not reconcile himself to the fact that his son was graying.  He offered to buy me a bottle of Grecian Formula whatever number it was.  I declined making him unhappy but pleasing mom. 

To this day I can’t stand wearing a hat or abide putting anything in my hair.  No oil, no mousse no wax, no grease. I wash it every day I can to keep the natural oils down.  If it doesn’t stay put and I don’t care.

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