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Why Is Hair so Important to Us?

Is it more than vanity?

Standing before the mirror in the ladies’ room during an interval at the symphony, combing my hair, a young woman approached and said, “What color was your hair? I hope mine goes white like yours.”

I said I did not remember, and went back to my seat, wondering why hair should be so important. Was all of this just vanity or did hair have other secret meanings?

I thought of Samson who, bereft of his hair, loses his great strength, blinded, “eyeless in Gaza”; Rapunzel, with the long hair which enables the prince to climb the tower; Medusa, with hair of snakes, who could turn someone to stone. I considered the religions which oblige women to cover their heads or wear a wig. Why were witches portrayed with long wild hair? Was hair associated with dangerous knowledge which was considered men’s prerogative?

As a child I had straight dark-blonde hair, while my sister had the curly light blonde locks. She was called the “English rose” with her pink cheeks and blonde curls, the one who was to die young and tragically. Later, I grew my hair longer and wore it in two thick plaits down my back.

Until I was seven and my sister nine, and much in our world disappeared, we lived in Johannesburg in a solid square house with fourteen acres of garden in the all white suburb of Dunkeld, with its large houses and gardens hidden behind thick hedges, all bathed in sunlight and deep shadow.

It was a place of many secrets. We caught rare, brief glimpses of our parents who slept in the West wing in a vast bedroom with lined curtains closed on the light, thick mauve carpets which muffled their steps, and a dressing table with a secret drawer where Mother hid her jewelry. We slept with our nanny in a big nursery with a bay window and a blackboard which covered one wall.

Our parents said goodnight in the blue light of the nursery, Father looking prosperous and portly in his bespoke black tuxedo, his grey hair surrounding a shiny bald plate and Mother shimmering in a strapless dress spangled with sequins, smelling of sweet perfume.

Why had our young Mother with her soft, restless curls, married this old, distant man with his bald head? Was she in love with this man who had, we discovered, left his first wife to marry her, a slim young girl with lustrous eyes and curls?

We were looked after by a white nanny. White nannies wore white uniforms and did not cover their hair. The black ones wore doeks, a turban tied around the head to cover their hair, and blue, brown, or green uniforms. I remember chasing the cook around the lawn trying to remove her “doek,” curious as to what was underneath.
It was a world of many mysteries.

After our father died at 60 of a heart attack, Mother moved us into one room in a boarding house in Parktown where the three of us slept in one bed, though our father had left his fortune solely to his young, second wife with a small part put in trust for his little girls.

This was 1948, the start of the apartheid period in South Africa when the Nationalists divided the country strictly along racial lines. To distinguish whites from blacks, a pencil was used. If it fell through the hair the person was considered white, but if it stuck fast, black or colored. Hair was used to distinguish those who had power.

In the boarding house in Parktown while Mother slept heavily, in the hot afternoons, I wandered around in the back garden, trying to catch the wild cats which roamed. One afternoon to my surprise a small creature allowed me to gather it up and hide it at the back of a closet.

Mother found it, and when I came back from school, the kitten was gone. It had left me a little gift, the ring worm, which now covered my body and scalp.

Brushing my hair, Mother warned she would have to get the hairdresser to come and cut my hair off in order to treat the sores.

“Not my hair!” I protested, hanging onto my thick plaits.

That afternoon the hairdresser arrived unusually in our flat. Mother ushered us into the small, windowless bathroom where I stood looking up at him as though at my executioner.

A tall pale man, he told me to sit on the stool, where I listened to the awful snip-snap and felt the cold of the scissors against my scalp. “Let me see,” I begged, and he lifted me up to see myself in the mirror above the sink.

I saw a pale stranger who stared back in horror, her cropped hair rising up like a hedgehog as though startled by some terrible visitation from another world.

I climbed to the bottom of my bed weeping. “Too ugly! Too ugly!” I told my mother who beseeched me to emerge. Without my hair I was bereft of value. So it seemed to me.

The hair grew back, of course, though now it seemed prudent to keep it short. I grew a fringe to cover the pimples on my forehead which appeared during adolescence. Hair could hide as well as reveal.

My sister and I turned to books for knowledge, reading the great Russians, copying out Ivan Karamazov’s speeches: how could evil exist in a world conceived by an omnipotent God? Why the suffering of those around us who had cared for us, those whom we loved?

My sister married a brilliant boy, a handsome man with a fine head of blonde hair, a bright flash of a smile. A doctor at twenty one, he was studying to become a cardiothoracic surgeon.

I visited my sister in South Africa or she came to Europe. She wore dark glasses, and I noticed bruises on her fair skin. Her hair seemed ashen, but she said the children had fallen off walls or out of trees to explain the mysterious bruises. She, too, had learned the art of silence. It was my mother who told me the husband was beating the children and his wife, and that she feared for my sister’s life.

When my mother called in the night to tell me my sister’s husband had driven off the road on a dry night no other car in sight, I flew out to Johannesburg and stood in the morgue as they wheeled her in behind glass. She was thirty eight years old, the mother of six children. I could not help her, heal her, or even hold her one last time in my arms.

They had covered her shattered body, including her lovely fair curls with a white winding sheet. Only her pale waxy face was lifted up toward me as though she wished to show me the truth: that she was indeed dead.

Does hair indicate some kind of wisdom or power? Have I learned secret spells in the many books I have read or those I have written, secret spells to help with a long life of suffering and loss?

Perhaps it is rather that I have remembered what I have always known. In a photo, Mother stands, a young slim, glossy-haired woman, leaning longingly against my father who looks back at her over his shoulder. Perhaps their eleven years together were the happiest in her life as my mother would say. Certainly I learned from her to love the simple things: the sticky leaves in the spring, my children, our grandchildren and all of mankind in its diversity of colours and cultures, long-haired or curled short, love for all those lost and gained.

Sheila Kohler is the author of most recently a memoir: "Once We Were Sisters"

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