Gray and Naked
On a recent visit to my mother’s, I sprawled in T-shirt and shorts in the front yard of her house, relishing the California sunshine. As I angled my head for the best late afternoon rays, my mother, sitting in the shade behind me, disturbed the heavy air and our customary silence with a Eureka sort of shriek. “You sure have a lot of gray hair!”
“Yep,” I agreed.
“And you’re not going to do anything about it?”
My eyes were closed against the bright sky, but I knew from my mother’s voice that she had on her what-will-the-neighbors-think look. She herself had only stopped dying her hair a few years ago.
“Nope,” I answered. I live in Seattle–where, according to Maria Semple’s character in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, women have “only two hairstyles: short gray hair and long gray hair.”
"It’s okay for me to have gray hair,” I assured my mother. “I’m sixty years old.”
The first signs of gray, barely noticeable except to my mother, appeared when I turned forty.
“Time to start dying,” she had said then.
I knew she meant my hair. More or less.
It’s been a gradual process, so even now, twenty years later, the dark strands dominate. Of course, the gray clearly has the momentum. Each time I’ve visited my mother over the years, she has exclaimed about the encroaching gray. Each time, I have tossed off her remarks. Only lately have I thought about what might lie beneath her concern.
Maybe there was something more to her time-to-start-dying remark after all. Maybe having a gray-haired daughter is uncomfortable for her. A reminder that time passes, we age, we die. At eighty-three, my mother often starts a sentence with When I’m gone, as if such a thing will happen a week from Tuesday. Which it could for any of us. Life, or rather death, is like that.
The fact that we both qualify for membership in AARP puts us on common ground. Makes us gray-haired peers (Hey, girlfriend!). Not really, though. My mother and I have never been close, both of us shy as snails. Conversations are often as awkward as the silences. Hugs are self-conscious. Confidences are rare and clumsy.
On the last morning of my visit, after I got out of the shower, I wrapped myself in a towel and returned to the spare room where my clothes trailed out of my half-packed suitcase. My mother knocked on the door. “Donna, are you dressed?”
“No,” I said. I was wearing only a bra. The towel, which I had draped over a chair, was out of reach. I knew what was coming so I ducked behind the door.
My mother opened it, the way she always had when I was growing up. She knocks, not to request entry, but to announce it.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I’ve seen you naked before.”
I’m pretty sure the last time that was true I was six years old. Nevertheless, I stepped away from behind the door. I was determined not to mind being half-naked in front of my mother. My way of standing up to her–a sixty-year-old daughter to her eighty-three-year-old mother. Or maybe, I was trying to adopt the gray-haired-peers mindset of old girlfriends unfazed by one seeing the other barely clothed.
My mother held out a dusty jewel case to me. A strip of masking tape on the lid bore my name in her artless hand. Inside was a ring–a look-at-me cluster of glittery stones on a fat gold ribbon of a band. “Your father gave this to me.”
My father died twenty years ago, the year I turned forty, the year my first gray hairs showed up, the year my mother advised me to start dying.
The ring was to be mine after she was gone, she explained. Instead, she had decided to bequeath it in person. I took the beautiful, inelegant ring from her hand.
I thanked her. No hug. After all, I was half-naked.
We both stared at the ring in my possession now.
“It’s a little big,” she said, giving it a parting look. Then she stepped out of the room and closed the door.
I slipped the ring on my finger, watched it gleam as it wobbled in a loose embrace.
Hey, girlfriend, I whispered through the door.
About the Writer
Donna Miscolta wrote this essay about her mother two years ago. Her mother died in June 2016. Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Her short story manuscript Hola and Goodbye was selected by Randall Kenan for the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman and will be published by Carolina Wren Press in 2016. Her fiction has appeared in Crate, Hawaii Pacific Review, Waxwing, and Spartan. Excerpts from her unpublished novel The Education of Angie Rubio appear in The Adirondack Review and Bluestem. Find more information at donnamiscolta.com.