[about the author]
i actually like speaking in front of large crowds. freakish,
i work crossword puzzles in ink.
i am the american nigella lawson. or maybe the american eddie
izzard. can't decide, really.
i would be a really good mom, but i'm cool with being a really
i am sometimes more perceptive than i would like to be.
i am fiercely loyal. sometimes, stupidly so.
i never play dumb. never.
i am way too hard on myself.
i am a change agent.
i sometimes cross that fine line between assertive and aggressive.
i am not afraid to tell people that i love them.
i am militantly pro-choice.
i am pro-adoption.
i know a little bit about alot of things.
i typically enjoy the company of men more than women.
i am capable of being really mean and nasty, but i fight it.
i am a lifelong cubs fan. do not laugh.
i have been known to hold a grudge.
i have hips.
i am not my sister.
i am lousy at forgiving myself.
i am an indoor kind of gal.
i am a bargain shopper. to the point of obsession.
i am 32 flavors. and then some.
today, i stared out my window and watched the snow fall onto the bright yellow forsythia bushes that have already come into bloom.
forsythia, with its eye-aching intensity, is the undeniable herald of spring. of those first days when the sun is warm, but air is still damp and chilly.
on saturday mornings, i used to go with my grandmother to get her hair done. we made the 30-minute drive every other saturday morning to anne dodd’s beauty salon.
in truth, the “salon” was simply a room added on to the back of anne’s large white two-story house. from the street, the only evidence of its existence was a small metal sign. it was lettered in elegant script, and squeaked when it swung in the strong spring breeze.
anne’s immaculate yard was ringed by a hedgerow of forsythia, and her winding sidewalk bordered by daffodils. when the first days of spring arrived, her house was like something out of a painting. the stark white house a perfect backdrop for the profusion of bold yellow, emerald green and clear blue. sometimes, on particularly sunny spring mornings, i would wait for my grandmother to take her place in anne’s chair, then i would go back outside to the front steps and stare up at the scene, transfixed.
sometimes the picture was completed by the appearance of anne’s beautiful white cat, princess. she would occasionally slip outside and take a seat at the top of the stairs leading up to the sweeping front porch.
inside anne’s salon, everyone was beautiful. glamorous. like the studio stills of ava gardner or rita hayworth. airbrushed to perfection. it was an effect achieved primarily through the use of low, soft lighting and pink light bulbs. however, in the years that have passed since then, i also think it was due in part to the ever-present mist of aquanet that hung in the air, acting like a diffusing lens. an ozone-destroying gaussian blur.
i would often sit on the floor, princess in my lap. i would stare up at the magical transformations taking place, as woman after woman sat down in anne’s chair looking rather ordinary and, an hour later, emerged a changed person. it was a metamorphosis.
she would twist their hair onto rollers of all sizes and colors. sometimes, i would stand beside the chair, watching her hands work, my own sliding back and forth over the sheets of thin white paper that anne used to blot the excess hairspray from the teased updos she shellacked with aquanet. other times, i would simply sit on the sofa and page through the books containing picture after picture of women with perfect coifs and blood-red lips. dreaming of the day i would be glamorous like them. dreaming of the day i would walk through the world with a chic updo, or a head full of tousled curls.
as with most small beauty salons, anne had a loyal group of regulars. most of them my grandmother’s age. they all knew one another’s affairs, and for years they had shared the floral-patterned chintz sofa, sipping tea out of dainty china cups while they waited their turn. they were a collective group of grandmothers to me. i called them the gammas.
“are you keeping your grades up?”
“sit up straight, dear. remember, no matter how expensive the blouse, it always looks cheap if you slouch.”
“she has such long fingers, dorothy. you really should get her into piano.”
i remember when it came time to lop off my waist-length locks into the trendy dorothy hamill pixie all of my classmates wore.
after an hour of trying to dissuade me from my decision, the gammas all stood around the chair. as anne made the first cut, i heard a collective intake of breath.
when she finally spun me around to have my first look in the mirror, i saw five faces standing behind me with smiles on their lips and tears in their eyes.
“ah, she’s all grown up.”
“she looks so beautiful.”
“dorothy, you should be so proud.”
and so it went.
for years, the gammas offered up advice on everything from etiquette…
“be sure your thank you note is handwritten. no one is too busy to sit down and write a personal note. these pre-printed thank you cards are a horrible thing. just horrible.”
“i know it’s not in vogue anymore, but there’s something to be said for wearing a stylish hat.”
…to life lessons…
“going to church doesn’t make you a christian anymore than standing in the garage makes you a car.”
it was the gammas who snapped photo after photo when i came to anne’s shop to have my hair swept up into an elegant french twist for my junior prom.
“oh, that dress! you’re a vision!”
“you look more like audrey hepburn than audrey hepburn herself.”
“dorothy, i could just cry.”
and it was the gammas hearts i broke when i decided to wear my hair in loose waves for my senior year, skipping a trip to anne’s.
as the years passed, i stopped accompanying my gran to anne’s, filling my saturdays with other things.
my gran would often tell me that the gammas had asked about me. i knew she kept them apprised over the years of my successes. of my triumphs. she probably told them about my failures and my losses, too, but i liked to think that, to them, i remained pristine and infallible.
as is the way of things, the gammas weren’t immortal.
as each one passed, i accompanied my gran to each wake. we always sat with anne, who always got the call to do their hair one last time.
“anne, she looks beautiful.”
all of the other gammas had passed away when my gran was diagnosed with cancer. the doctor talked with us about the prognosis, and about the course of chemotherapy he suggested. the cancer was advanced. the chemotherapy would be aggressive, and should start the next week.
we sat silently together at her kitchen table that night. she drank cup after cup of strong black coffee, chain smoking. we were working crossword puzzles, speaking only when we needed help with a clue.
“you know i want to be cremated.”
“yes, gran, i know.”
“and you know i’m going to lose my hair.”
“probably, gran. probably.”
“i suppose we should call anne tomorrow then.”
and so it came to be that i took my grandmother to anne dodd’s beauty salon for one last transformation. i explained everything to anne on the telephone when i called. i could hear her voice breaking as she told me that she would cancel her appointments for the next day. that we could come any time.
when we pulled up to the front gate that bright spring saturday, the same sign still swung in the wind. it had a few rust spots now, and its elegant black lettering was faded from too many days spent in the blinding sunlight.
stepping into the salon was like stepping back in time. it was all just as i remembered it. the smell of permanent solution. the cherub vase in the windowsill. the handwritten appointment book beside the telephone.
when anne hugged my grandmother, i smiled to myself. she still referred to her using “mrs.” and she still mispronounced her last name.
nothing had changed.
as my grandmother took her seat, i settled into the couch. in short order, a fluffy white cat had found its way to my lap.
“princess?” i muttered.
“oh, that’s snowball, honey,” said anne. “i’m afraid we lost princess years ago.”
i sat quietly, listening to the two old friends laughing and talking. sharing the latest gossip, catching up on each other’s lives, yet never acknowledging the reason for the day’s visit. i picked up a photo album on the side table next to me. there was a picture of anne, standing next to the sign in the front yard. its letters bold and clear, the forsythia in bloom beside her. her first day of business. thumbing through the pages, i saw photos of me, with my dorothy hamill haircut. me before my prom. and, always, the gammas. as i looked at the pictures of them, i realized that that all of them were gone, these smiling faces looking up at me.
and that, soon, my gran would be, too.
suddenly, my throat was tight. my face grew hot and my eyes blurred with tears.
“how do i look?”
i looked up from the photos.
“beautiful, gran. you’re just so beautiful.”
we said our good-byes and stepped out into the sunny spring day.
as we walked down the sidewalk, my gran reached over and took my hand in hers.
that moment her fingers laced in mine is frozen in my mind forever. the profusion of colors is so vivid that it looks unreal. as though i'm walking there beneath the cornflower blue sky, surrounded by the vibrating green of the grass, blinded by the buttery daffodils and the saffron forsythia, holding hands with a ghost.
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