I don’t exactly remember when I got my first gray hair – my 20s, probably – young enough that it was still a novelty.
Complete strangers felt compelled to mention it, even touch my hair uninvited, the way some people think they can touch a pregnant woman’s pooch.
I didn’t mind the gray. It is a family trait – dark brown hair touched with frost. I have my grandmother’s hair, my mother’s, my uncles’ and, now, my cousins’, too. It is our heritage, our family resemblance. When we’re all together, you can tell we belong to each other by the gray.
By the time I was in my mid-30s, there was more than a dusting on the temples, enough that the man I was dating at the time used to tease me and say he’d waited a lifetime to date an old woman. And it was a compliment.
My hairdresser never once pushed me to dye away the gray. Instead, he proclaimed I had a crop of “natural sparkle” and gave me a ’do that showed it off.
When I go back, look at old pictures, I’m amazed at just how dark my hair was. I am so used to the sight in the mirror of salt-and-pepper, heavier on the salt these days. I almost can’t remember when my hair was brown, although one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard was a crotchety old guy who – when we were introduced – said he’d known me so long, my hair was brown when we first met.
My friends have always said I was lucky because I have “nice” gray hair, almost white, not drab, and again, I give all the credit to my heritage. I had nothing to do with it, except get out of the way, and let it be what it is.
Gray hair is a conversation I have a lot these days with people I know – and people I meet by chance – women (and a few men) who have decided to go gray. For some, it is purely practical. The cost and time it takes to dye their hair is prohibitive – too much, too often. Others are curious to see what their real color is. They’ve dyed their hair for so many years, it is a mystery.
And then there are those who are making a statement, fashion and otherwise: This is who I am.
The other day I was shopping in a store I seldom frequent (they sell technical stuff). When I checked out, the clerk – herself gray-haired – reached over to shake my hand. She smiled wide and said in a lottery-winning, you’ve hit the jackpot voice: “Congratulations for going gray. Good for you!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her this is nothing new. I’ve been gray a very long time.
Fashion magazines say that as we age, our skin tones change, that women even in their 50s and those of us in the years beyond, need to adjust; need to face facts. There aren’t too many 60-somethings with naturally dark hair, even fewer of us in our 70s and 80s who don’t have at least some gray.
That’s why I suppose for so many, going gray is an emotional decision. I think what some women are really asking is if I feel old because I have gray hair, if people treat me differently, if it’s changed how I see myself.
So I tell them this story.
When I was in my early 40s, I went on a disastrous weekend getaway to New Orleans with a man (not the one who called me an old woman) I’d dated on and off for 25 or so years. It was our last hoorah, and I knew it every step, every meal, every sight-seeing moment we took. All I wanted was to go home.
But there was a reason I was there when I was, I do believe, because one morning, I got off a street car, miserable, unhappy, kicking myself for being in the place I was. The conductor waited at the bottom of the steps to lend me a steadying hand.
He was African-American, older, a gentleman I’d soon discover with a preacher’s voice.
When I landed on solid ground, he took my head in his hands, as if he were laying hands on the gray streaking through. He looked me in the eye, and then he said: “Young lady, wear that gray like a crown.”
And so, that’s what I tell the women who ask me what it’s like, having all this gray hair. I tell them about the man in New Orleans, a man who anointed me, who saw the beauty in the gray – as I do theirs.
Susan Harrison Wolffis is an award winning writer known for her engaging writing style.