MOM 1: What are you going to do with your life? What do you want to be...
3 DADS(in unison): ...besides...
3 MOMS(in unison): ...disheveled?
In this deadly year, with so much to fear, why am I terrified of a haircut? Before the pandemic hit, every seven weeks my stylist would trim my naturally shapeless brown hair into what she called a shaggy bob. I rarely missed an appointment. I never gave my hair a chance to grow any way it pleased. I never wanted to. Grooming, I believed, made me professional, competent, in control.
Midway through the pandemic, when Ann Arbor had flattened the curve and haircuts should have felt safe, I still couldn't bring myself to make an appointment. My husband and son went to the barber looking like Joe Cocker and came home neatly clipped like George Clooney. What was there to fear, anyway? I've been cropped, buzzed, and bobbed my entire life. As a kid, snarls plagued my hair like sudden twisters on a prairie. When I was eight years old, my mother had finally had it with droopy ponytails and crooked pig tails. To the salon we went. Back then, the trend was the shag. Jane Fonda had gone short. "Hair had ruled me for many years. Perhaps I used it to hide behind,” she would write in her 1985 memoir My Life So Far.
My cut ended up more Brady Bunch than Klute.
The next day at school, I fidgeted under the stares of the other girls. This was the post-Flower Child Midwest, when parents once again sent their boys to the barber every six weeks. Although we lived just a few miles from Ann Arbor, where the last of the hippies were forming what would become the annual Hash Bash on the campus Diag, order over children's hair had been restored. Vietnam was lost. Nixon was holed up at Yorba Linda writing the memoir he hoped would rehabilitate his legacy. But the girls in my class still had long, glossy hair like extras belting out 60s counter-culture showstoppers on an eight track cassette: Flow it! Show it! Long as God can grow it!
I wouldn't understand that Hair's title song was more about sex, drugs and politics than actual hair until, in the same year Fonda published her memoir, I saw the musical performed in a tiny community theater in the town where I was born. Back when Hair was in hiatus to make the leap from Broadway to the big screen, I'd become the only girl in my class with hair so short I couldn't hide behind it. The other girls took in the new style with suspicion and pity. Here was a hopeless case, they seemed to say, a girl who didn't get what hair was for. It didn't help my image that I was also a Yank who'd just moved to the Midwest, who hadn't had time to fit in before her cut made her a spectacle.
By the holidays of this pandemic year, my hair was long enough to crawl into my mouth when I yawned or ate, and still I wouldn't go in for a cut. That flattened curve turned into another deadly surge, and the opportunity was lost. Heavy bangs now fragmented the people and places around me, like I was looking through the beaded curtains hippies used to hang in doorways. My hair was too short to make a tail, or a braid, or a bun, but it was far too long to leave free. To read, to jog, to wrap the gifts for my parents and steps that I would deliver to their doors like a contactless grocery service, I had to bind the hair into a sprig on the crown of my head. Performing these little assaults that tugged the roots and frayed the ends was the only way I could see clearly.
If the saying is true, that men prefer women to grow their hair long, and women prefer styles that can be easily managed, how can these violations be avoided? Someone will have to cut, groom and shape; or someone will have to pull and plait. There's no in-between.
JEANIE: I dig this groovy, hip, beautiful living hunk of gold, blond, blue-eyed man, muscle of all muscle, smooth skin animal. Claudio, I'd die for you. I am lost in the unfathomable infinities of your mystical third eye.
The last time my hair was this long, I was a bride. I spent the better part of my engagement year pinning and curling hair out of my eyes. No way was I going to risk walking down the aisle looking like my third-grade riff on Florence Henderson. Payoff came on the morning of the wedding, when my stylist wove sprigs of baby's breath into braids just luxurious enough to call French. But even with months of freedom to grow, some strands were too short to capture. In photos from that day, the fringes graze my shoulders like eyelashes fluttering in the wrong place.
From the time I was old enough to think about boys, my father had lectured me never to marry, or, perish the thought, have kids. After my parents staged the Midwestern adaptation of the bitter divorce, their favorite props fallen idols of middle-class security—shattered casserole sets, vengeful defaults on credit card and utility bills—I swore to follow this advice. For a wedding I'd never expected to have, I'd chosen a dress off the rack and a low-key ceremony for a few guests. Yet there I sat preening before a mirror, obeying an ancient feminine ritual. My ancestors, too, would have spent more time on their hair than their dresses. Long after the practice of bride abduction had passed, my ancestors performed the ritual as if it were a play. Female relatives would plait the bride's hair and act out protecting her when the groom and his men would arrive to snatch her from her father's house. Spectators would cheer the bride on to her new man's home.
By the early 1990s, my father and I hadn't spoken for several years. I didn't invite him to my wedding, but he knew of the ceremony through my brothers, who weren't estranged. At the time, I didn't think it odd that I, the only daughter, was the only one outside our family's circle of men. As I was about to walk down the aisle, I had a brief fantasy that my father would show up to object, maybe steal me away. He had, at times, owned a gun. He'd also had a fascination for martial arts weapons, those viciously beautiful throwing stars and sai. He'd confided in me about plans to take revenge on colleagues he felt had wronged him, perhaps ambush folks as they left the office late. My own fearful fantasy as I walked down the aisle didn't seem far-fetched. Perhaps I'd be the only bride in my ancestral line to be abducted by her father back to her original home.
Of course my father had no such plan. I made it safely to my husband's side. Like most couples, we'd scrubbed “obey” from our pledges to one another. Until I was taking my vows, I had never thought of following my father's advice to remain single as obeying, and of marrying anyway as defiance.
MARGARET (To Audience): I wish every mother and father in this theatre would go home and make a speech to their teenagers and say: 'Kids, be free, no guilt, be whoever you are, do whatever you want, just as long as you don't hurt anyone.'
After my parents' bitter divorce—although in our small Midwestern town in the early 80s, I had no idea what amicable looked like because no one else was divorced—non-custodial visitation with my father meant excursions to neutral territories. On one of these visits, the chosen territory was the smoky local bowling alley. My father felt the apartment he shared with three other men wasn't suitable for children, so on a rainy afternoon, I dutifully helped my two younger brothers avoid hurling balls straight into the gutter while an unfamiliar woman kept score.
Unfamiliar to my brothers, but not to me.
By the time she followed me into the bowling alley's restroom between games, I had known Carol for a few months. She was petite, far smaller than I was. Her brown hair hung in a straight bob that drained her face of any unique character. She was soft-spoken, not one to overstep. She owned her own home, would serve me shortbread cookies when I visited. Today, many years later, I drive by that house on my way to work every day. I have no idea whether she still lives there. I wonder whether she is still unmarried. At the time I knew her, Carol was expecting to marry my father, which must have been why she lit into me like a mother.
As she scolded, she directed her words to the long, glaring mirror we were sharing. She'd never before said a cross word to me. I had actually needed to pee, which was why I was stuck with my hands under the running faucet. The water had turned hot, but I couldn't move. The skin was red, chapped. My hands should have hurt like hell. Carol, who apparently had not needed to pee, was telling me I was selfish not to call my father more, spend more time with him. You should hear how he talks about you, how he misses you. If you only knew how hurt he was, you wouldn't treat him this way.
Carol is also my mother's name. How strange it was, to be yelled at by a woman who shares the name but looks and sounds nothing like your mother. And my own mother would never call me selfish. Hadn't I just driven my brothers twenty miles on my day off from work to bowl these tiresome games? After a strike and a spare in the last frame won her the game, Carol must have felt emboldened.
I knew my father had not proposed to Carol, and also suspected he never would. Was she auditioning for the tough love part of the role she thought she was about to win? Or was I being auditioned for the role of dutiful daughter? I glanced again at Carol's glittering eyes, the bland, unmemorable face I would, now, never forget. She could be any woman. I looked at my own reflection, my own flat, pinched eyes, hair hanging in limp, irritable waves. Whatever style the last cut had held was overgrown, but too short to secure. I had nothing at all to grab onto.
By the time my hands felt the burning, Carol was waiting for my answer. It was a moment to seize. I was holding cards from a deck Carol didn't know existed. But like this moment, and this relationship, it was power I hadn't asked for, didn't want, and couldn't, in any case, bring myself to use.
What I said: I don't want to talk about my father.
What I could have said: Protecting him is a waste of time.
And: He isn't going to marry you.
And: You don't know about the others, do you?
HUD: Big Daddy, I'm talking to you!! It's very simple. You ask me why? Like I like the feel of the long silky strands on my ears, and the back of my neck, and on my shoulders, and down my back. Like it's goose-bump time, know what I mean?
MARGARET: That's very interesting.
You see, dear, he does it for the sensual experience, that's why.
My father has always been two different people. Even his birth was documented twice. Grammy Ethel went into a hard, unexpected labor while shopping over the bridge in Kittery, Maine and rushed to a hospital. My father was born there and issued a birth certificate. He also received a birth certificate back over the bridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where they lived. If you ask him where he was born, he will answer Portsmouth, which isn't true, but isn't strictly a lie, either. It's also neither strictly the truth or a lie to say my father was born in two places, both naval ports, both rigidly Yank, both towns founded to defend territory. What is true is that my father perfected the dual roles of charming professional family man and a man much darker, depending upon which side of any bridge he happened to be that day.
I share one of these birthplaces with my father, Portsmouth. When I was born, the town was still as it had been when my father was young—hardscrabble lower middle class, historic but decaying Colonial homes whose deteriorated charm would tempt yuppie gentrification about the time Jane Fonda was again, perhaps, hiding under flowing, feathered hair in those 1980s exercise videos.
The summer after Carol followed me into the bowling alley restroom, I visited Portsmouth with my real mother, herself a Massachusetts Yank. The downtown boasted upscale restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries. I hadn't visited since I was a kid, when my parents locked my brother and me in the pillory and snapped Polaroids. My mother and I strolled down the main street, window shopping. The family-owned hardware stores, diners and bars my mother remembered were now designer clothing shops and gourmet seafood restaurants. On the end of the street, a tiny theater advertised a community production of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. After a day spent visiting my father's old haunts, my mother and I both laughed at the culture clash. Hippies had been way after my father's time. I doubt my father's hair had ever even reached the upper rims of his ears.
The Flower Power crowd hadn't been my mother's tribe, either, although she is younger than my father, about the right age to have been a hippie. Hair was first copyrighted in the year I was born, 1966, when my mother was twenty-three years old. By the time it was nominated for a Tony for Best Musical and Best Director, my parents had relocated to Ypsilanti, Michigan. 1969 also marked the first year Michigan serial killer John Norman Collins began slaying young women. My mother spent this final Summer of Love juggling kids, school, and the fear of being murdered. She earned her teaching certificate at Eastern Michigan University while the Ypsilanti Ripper killed two women from that campus. My father, who took the train to Dearborn every day for his job with Ford, didn't allow her to go to the library after dark. We would later learn that Collins had used his aunt's basement in a house a few streets over from ours to imprison one of the girls before killing her. Campus might never have posed the threat our own neighborhood did. On her walks with us to the park, had my mother passed a young man with black hair and dark eyes and assume he was just another neighbor? Was she in danger of being abducted without ever suspecting the possibility was so close to home? Although radical Ann Arbor was just up the road, Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out was never a choice for my mother.
Hair may have been the most unlikely play I would expect to see in my father's hometown, but my mother and I picked up tickets for that night's performance. The theater was an intimate, sparse space with a thrust stage, perfect for Hair's minimalism and close communion with the audience. Scaffolding spanned the blank back wall. The play opened in darkness, with the eerie sounds of silence called for in the book. When the lights came on and the tribe joined Claude to sing “Age of Aquarius,” the actors were draped in beads, fringe, and, of course, hair. Woof, played by an actor who clearly had crossed the age boundary New Lefty Jack Weinberg told us never to trust, reeled off sex acts in the brief ditty “Sodomy” to game laughter. The tribe's chants during The Rally dutifully listed 60s pop icons—Tuesday Weld, Burton-Taylor, Andy “Warpop.” “LBJ! IRT! USA! LSD!” the cast bellowed in “Initials.” The audience, seemingly the same untrustworthy age as the cast, laughed and cheered at the references I struggled to catch. The camaraderie between this cast and their spectators lacked the original production's sense of radical boundary-smashing and felt, instead, like the ex-hippies who'd earned enough dough to upscale this port town were sharing a nostalgic look back on their pre-sellout days.
At the end of Act One, draft cards blazed and the huge communal blanket thrown over the cast writhed with impressively authentic hedonistic ecstasy. The audience knew what to expect when the blanket was peeled away. Back when the musical was still in previews, James Rado, Hair's co-author who also played Claude in that production, told the New York Times theatre critic Marilyn Bender the first Be-In at Central Park had inspired the nude scene: “Two guys took off their clothes—it was sensational at the time—and the cops closed in.” Gerome Ragni, the other co-author who played Berger in the original production, added, “Anybody who feels like it can take his clothes off. Everybody wants to now, even the stagehands. We turned them on.” Bender went on to report that on any given night the nudity varied, depending on the actors' “hang-ups.” Sally Eaton, who played the pregnant flower child Jeanie, told Bender, “I'd love to [take my clothes off] but I haven't been asked to. I suppose it might be a little too much like the National Geographic” (The New York Times, April 28, 1968).
I don't know how turned on the stagehands or Jeanie felt that night in Portsmouth, but when the blanket came off, only one guy flashed the audience, arms thrown open like he was calling for a hug-in. The next body part he flashed was a naughty grin as he whooped off stage. It was like peeping at your brother, not a brash counter culturalist getting off on the dawning of the Aquarian Age. The audience laughed as if being funny was the whole point of getting naked. Why should we react any other way? It had been fifteen years since this scene had shocked anyone. That particular brand of challenging the status quo, sensational at the time, wasn't in vogue anymore. By the time we were flashed, when the draft was as much of a relic as the play's fringe jackets and striped bell bottoms, Hair's Portsmouth stripper had been stripped of the social context that had once made that act of indecency an act of pure decency.
But, in the wake of my parents' divorce and the daughterly juggling act that had led to Carol's chiding at the bowling alley, I had already been seeing the play in a different light. When the song “Donna” came up early on, I laughed, thinking of Madonna, who was just then charting with “Papa Don't Preach.” But I stopped laughing when Jeanie took center stage to tell us she'd asked her parents for money to support her unexpected pregnancy, only to be told to “stay pregnant.” Now she was providing sex and back-up vocals to the Tribe's male leaders. Watching Jeanie and the other women sing about Claude's manly physique, give the men hallucinogens like offerings to the gods, join the communal ecstasy under the blanket, made me wonder if Jeanie's Summer of Love had liberated her, or, like my mother, trapped her in yet another repressive community. Had joining this tribe pregnant, rejected by her family and the Establishment, been an act of free will and rebellion, or just another abduction? In gentrified Portsmouth, in this audience of upper middle-class women long past confronting their versions of Jeanie's dilemma, perhaps I wasn't viewing a counterculture, but the same old culture. Perhaps that was the reason Ragni and Rado structured this musical to reflect what they'd seen on the streets and Be-Ins of New York, “tribes” freed from traditional moral and societal mores. The musical's action unfolds with no boundaries between scenes, like a surrealist painting. Or a drug trip. Or an artistic sleight of hand that re-packages the same old power trips with trippy staging and raw throated anthems.
It also never occurred to me until I'd seen the musical to wonder how my father, after his pre-Vietnam era military service, with a wife and two young kids, had really spent his Summers of Love. Was it then, while my mother was preoccupied with children, and school, and a man who might kill her, that my father began forming his own tribe of women?
CLAUDE: I don't want to be a dentist or a lawyer or a bum or an IBM machine, or a rock 'n' roll hero, or a movie star. I just want to have lots of money.
Before our visits, my father always said the same thing:
Don't tell Carol about Krista or Gina.
Don't tell Krista about Carol or Gina.
Don't tell Gina about Krista or Carol.
And I would agree to keep quiet. It never occurred to me not to obey. I must have sensed, as a teen in the conservative 1980s, when sexual liberation was again under attack with a gruesome assist from the AIDS epidemic, that tattling about each's secret presence would only hurt the women, not my father. Wouldn't he just find three more women to deceive? It also never occurred to me to wonder why I, the only daughter, was the only one to spend time with these women. My three brothers never toggled between these glimpses into three different futures. I know they met Carol in the bowling alley. If they ever met Krista or Gina, I was unaware; I've never asked. I've kept my father's secrets.
Carol, Krista, and Gina were successful professionals. They'd never been married. There the similarities ended. When I recall how different they were from one another, what I remember is hair. Carol's brown, straight bob. Gina's tawny bob a handshake between Tony Tennille and Princess Di. Krista's salt and pepper frizz, the fly-away silvery ends that vanished into the air around her. Their hair revealed their age. Gina had to be much younger than my father, but old enough to be a confident auto industry professional. Krista was my father's contemporary, with her streaked hair, wrinkles, graying teeth and wise, patient smile. She, too, worked in the auto industry. I don't remember what Carol did for a living. I don't know why I would remember what the others did and not she, as I saw her more often, knew her the best. Years later, I would come to learn that economic status, not looks, was the women's main attraction. My father told my older brother that he'd married a poor woman—our mother—and spending time with wealthy women was much more fun.
My father and I would only ever meet Gina for coffee. I never visited her home. Our meeting places, at café tables or casual walks down the street, were so impersonal that, although she was the youngest and prettiest, I ranked her low on my father's potential bride list. What ever did she find to ask me about, a quiet teen with a fluffy pixie cut that wouldn't become popular until the 1990s, slurping hot chocolate through a mound of whipped cream? While we talked, her awkward attempts to take my father's hand would be rebuffed, I assume, because I was there. When we said goodbye, he would sidestep her kiss. I would be looking away, so what was the hang up? I would always bring my gaze back to Gina's mask of disappointment. Still, Gina was a good person. I remember bright, friendly eyes, a wide, confident smile, fashionable and expensive tailored skirts and jackets, and thick, shining hair. Of the three women, Gina was the woman I wished I could be.
Krista was scattered in the way kind hearts are, as if her tenderness exhausted logic's oxygen. I spent a few of my father's custodial weekends at her historic 1920s-era home outside of Detroit. The house was just shy of derelict and utterly disorganized. But, like Krista's flyway hair, the chaos was endearing, as if Hummel knickknacks, scruffy paperbacks, and yellowing newspapers simply defied grooming. Guests to Krista's house slept with the cats. At the time I knew her, a dozen cats of every hue and stripe would join me on the green tweed couch at night. The cats ate before we did, and much better, too. Bowls of cat food dotted the scuffed oak flooring in the kitchen and the living room. Treats were stationed on every step of the crumbling concrete porch. The home's deterioration might not have been entirely due to age and benign neglect, but the cats, like Krista, were so sweet and affectionate you could hardly accuse them of inflicting damage. I once asked my father how Krista ended up with so many cats. He shrugged and told me he'd stopped keeping track of all the strays she took in. Feral or not, once a cat found its way into Krista's house, they stayed for life.
As with Gina, whenever I was around, my father sidestepped Krista's affection the way he dodged the cats teeming on the floor. But the domestic routine I witnessed on my weekends made me think Krista would eventually be my stepmom. We would read books on Saturday night over pizza, and then eat bagels from the deli down the street over the Sunday morning Free Press. Krista had more of a feel of how to talk to me, and held that not talking was okay, too, an intuitive empathy I now admire. After a few visits, around the time Carol was auditioning for the role of stepmom in the bowling alley bathroom, I wondered what would happen to her and Gina when my father proposed to Krista. Would he break up with them, and would they know the reason why? Or worse, would he continue the affairs, and would I continue to see them all and keep silent?
My fears of my future role lessened when, after a year of occasional sleepovers, I overheard Krista and my father talking in the kitchen when they thought I was still in the shower. Krista asked point blank about my father's intentions, that old fashioned word. She spoke of love, about good fits and happy habits, and, when my father didn't say anything, about his daughter being involved now. I waited until my father deflected with a comment about his uncertain finances, which, although true, was also a dodge I'd heard him use with the others. Krista must have bought it. When I stepped cautiously into the kitchen, Krista was smiling bravely. She reached out to touch my father's shoulder, but as I was now in the room, my father moved away. Krista picked up a tabby instead, as if she'd meant all along to swoop up someone who truly loved her.
After that, I didn't see Krista again. When I would ask about her, my father would shrug and wonder aloud about how anyone could stand to live with so many cats.
Eventually I stopped seeing Gina, too. Looking back, I wonder if my father tiered these women. Krista, the big heart whose looks took a back seat to her caring, was the one I visited most. Gina, the brisk professional, had a house that was apparently off limits. Carol fell somewhere in between. As a teenager, I wasn't able to see his girlfriends for who they really were, only what my father might see in them. I wonder now if my father was assembling the perfect woman, as if put together they formed the composite he ultimately desired. Or perhaps his perfect woman couldn't be all three at once.
Our estrangement began shortly after I stopped seeing Gina, a year or so after Carol's scolding. Since Carol was the last woman standing, when my older brother called a few years later to tell me our father was re-marrying, I assumed his bride was Carol. When my brother dropped a name, Connie, I scoured my memory. Was there a fourth I'd forgotten? Or was this a woman my father had kept secret even from me? As I was wondering, my brother asked me if I would attend the wedding. I told him no.
A week after my brother's call, my mother rang up in tears. Because Connie was Catholic, there would be an annulment. Twenty years and four kids, she cried, about to be denied in the eyes of God. I would have preferred to think of it as a meaningless ritual, but what ritual is ever meaningless?
And by what edict, I wondered, would my father also renounce the other three?
CLAUDE: I want to be over here doing the things they're over there defending.
My father was more Perry Como and Sammy Davis, Jr. than Simon and Garfunkel, more Abbott and Costello than Laugh-In. The counter-culture held no attraction for him. But back in the early 80s, in my father's hometown, as I watched men just a shade younger than my father perform Hair, I wondered if the hippie culture had touched him after all. In 1969, in a new town just down the road from idealistic hotbed Ann Arbor, had my father started collecting women under the pretense of sexual liberation? And, like the hippies of Hair, had assembling his hedonistic tribe felt like an act of freedom?
You have to pay admission to see the house where my father and his two sisters grew up, so the morning after Hair, my mother and I walked to Strawbery Banke to buy our tickets. Dating from the 1630s, Strawbery Banke has been an outdoor museum since the 1960s. My father's house, in the 30s and 40s a lower working class home, is now an exhibit. On that hot afternoon we visited, the museum's displays told us that saving my father's neighborhood, then called Puddle Dock, was the first time government funding for urban renewal was used for preservation, not demolition. This innovation contributed to the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the year I was born not far from Strawbery Banke.
My father's modest, serene house shows no trace of his tumultuous childhood. The tiny yard is a corner lot a few streets from the museum's entrance. By the time my father was born, his father was retired from the military, in poor health, living near a major naval port he no longer had the strength to work for. Family lore has it that my teenaged aunts ran with the sailors. My father doesn't talk about his childhood much, but as my mother points out the window to his bedroom, she tells me it fell to my father to keep his sisters away from men. My grandmother apparently felt that her girls were too wild to manage. My grandfather was a distant, eroded authority, not present much even when he was home. Terrible fights with his sisters were my father's norm. My Aunt Lillian, not unsurprisingly, became the family's Jeanie, and like her, Lillian stayed pregnant. But while Jeanie's penalty for her sexual liberation may not have been obvious to her, my aunt's eventual punishment was, like the pillory, pure Puritan public-shaming, heartbreakingly direct. After a second pregnancy, Lillian was deemed promiscuous and sterilized by court order.
All these years later, Strawbery Banke's tidy, painstakingly preserved Federal homes and narrow streets don't seem like they could ever have been the backdrop for social cruelties. The modern staging of Strawbery Banke's history is sanitized, a safe and fun family production. The day we visited, kids made hornbooks and candles in tents on the main green. Women dressed in Colonial cotton smocks, hair tucked neatly in their caps, held cooking and spinning demonstrations. The drama my mother and I toured that day was ordered around the traditional family norms and rituals Hair had deliberately smashed. My father's own family had also subverted the mythology of Yankee order and stoicism. Perhaps with their clannish in-fighting and the societal repercussions they, and especially Lillian, had suffered for not fitting in, my father and his sisters had more in common with the hippies than they would have ever admitted.
My mother and I took one more walk through the residential streets, away from the tourists and the crafting. Although the Puddle Dock creek that formed the main waterway had been filled in even before my father's time, the houses that had once lined the creek's bank still faced the ocean. We kept to the fading sunny side of the street, feeling how close the other side's homes were. As we approached my father's house for one last look, my mother said, “It must have been so difficult for your father to see his dad around all the time. Everything is so close together, you can't avoid anyone.”
The view of the ocean, a calm slate blue under a rosy sun, was so stunning I was only half-listening. “Why would Dad want to avoid Grandpa?”
“Oh, you know. Every time he walked to school or to the grocery store, he'd run into his dad with another woman on his arm. Always a different woman, too.”
My mother said this like she was reminding me of something she'd told me before. I looked away from the ocean, shocked. My mother's hair, a shade dimmer than towhead, was now the brightest light on this street. Did she know about my father's women? If she didn't, would I ever be the one to tell her?
Behind my mother, the gloom lurking in the narrow alleys took shape, became Carols and Kristas and Ginas, the shadow women who would never know they were secrets.
CLAUDE, BERGER & TRIBE:
GIVE ME DOWN TO THERE HAIR
SHOULDER-LENGTH OR LONGER
EV'RYWHERE DADDY DADDY
By the holidays, the virus was still raging, and I couldn't even get a comb through my long, tangled hair. I told myself I was being responsible by letting it grow, that I was staying home and staying safe. Would I ever admit that I knew exactly what the hippies were doing with all that hair? That Woof, Claude, Berger, Jeanie—even the stagehands—understood that the only way to resist being groomed is to refuse to groom yourself?
Just before our scheduled video gift-opening call with my father and stepmother, I wrestled my hair out of my eyes and sprayed it fast. It was wildly frizzy at the ends, lifeless and limp on top. I teased my flat crown to draw attention from the sharp age lines ringing my mouth Zoom calls out. From the other side of the screen, my father and Connie eyed my hair. Wow, it's really out there. Are you letting it go natural? Connie asked doubtfully. My hair was never unnatural, but I simply nodded. My husband smiled. It's beautiful, don't you think? My folks didn't answer this question. My father told me I look like a rock star, and I knew he was thinking Sammy Haggar, not Cher. Why, within seconds of our connection, were we talking about my hair? Connie had recently had hers done. Her silver bob fell gently around her shoulders, framed her bright smile. My father's hair, once as dark as his eyes, was the pure white of a man in his eighties who has outlived his youthful color. It was the silky white of bridal satin; the impenetrable white of opaque ice. His hair, illuminated by the screen's light, was beautiful.
Connie insisted that we each open all our gifts before moving to the next person, rather than alternate one gift at a time. We began with my son and worked our way to my father. After we'd unwrapped it all, my father revealed one more gift. When the danger subsides and I'm again sporting a shag, or a bob, or a pixie, cute diminutives that sound like the skipping rope games I played as a girl, my college age son will, we still hoped, be studying in Japan. He was supposed to spend the fall term abroad, before Covid grounded us all. When he's finally allowed to travel—because one day he's sure to, one day this contagion must run its course—my father will pay for any living expenses not covered by scholarships and savings. My son thanked his grandfather warmly, surprised and relieved to have this financial hurdle solved.
My father then told him that when he gets to Japan, three girls will be waiting for him and he'll need enough cash to keep them all happy. I almost gasped aloud. Did my father not realize what he was saying? His wide grin and sparkling eyes told me he thought it a joke. Did he remember that keeping three women is also the truth, a heritage he shared with me? Was this phrase, three girls waiting, my father's signal to my son to make our clan's tradition of concealing women his own? Had my grandfather sent the same signal to my father each time he passed him with a new woman on his arm on the narrow streets of Strawbery Banke?
When my father kept grinning, my son glanced at me and laughed weakly. My husband didn't say anything. Why react to a throw-away comment by an aged in-law? In the moment, I couldn't remember if I'd ever told him about my father's women. I wondered, then, surrounded by these men, if I'm one woman or three. Am I playing separate roles of daughter, wife and mother? Or have I succeeded in becoming what my father must have been seeking, that perfect woman who can be all three at once?
Next to my father on the screen, Connie nudged him and rolled her eyes.
She, too, thought it nothing more than an unseemly joke. She will never know what I knew, that years before she met him, three other women were waiting for my father to visit their homes, love them, propose to them, and I was the fourth, the girl who bound us all together.
CLAUDE: Jeanie, be a good fly and buzz off! (HE exits)
JEANIE: He loves me. Well, Crissy, are you going to stay here or are you going to the Be-In like a human being?
CRISSY: I'm gonna wait.
JEANIE: Still waiting for him, eh? (SHE takes a drag on HER joint) Well, don't hold your breath.
Excerpts are from Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado.