Our Grand Prize Winner, chosen by a team of LiveJournal staff, is: pollinia!
Our Community Grand Prize Winner, chosen by you, is: catchingspirit!
Each of our winners will receive a $500 prize and the right to select one charity from a list of four to receive a $500 donation. Congratulations to you both, and to everyone who submitted an essay. We think this has been a tremendous success, and we can't wait to run another contest, probably later on this year.
The winning submissions:
Grand Prize Winner, pollinia:
A Brief History of the Haircut
I was twelve the first time my mother dyed my hair. My grandfather had just passed away and she wanted to cheer me up, she said. I felt like a grown-up, so tall in that chair with the hydraulic pump at my feet. She was studying to be stylist then; she told me that she wanted to help other people express themselves. It seemed like a good idea to me.
The school’s training salon smelled of chemicals and burnt perms. It was a scary smell, but my mom smiled at me as she put on her rubber gloves and told me how pretty I was going to be. I believed her. I wanted to ask her when she had first dyed her own hair. I couldn’t remember her as anything other than a redhead.
Be quiet, she said, as she brushed my hair with bleach and curled it into crinkly foil packets, even if I pull too hard. My teachers are watching. So I bit the inside of my cheek and felt so proud that my mom had been earning the best grade in her class. After she’d foiled my whole head and had let me sit in the dryer chair, she leaned me back in the sink. She unfolded each packet, and each section of my hair made a thick wet plop against the side of the sink basin. She turned on the faucet and the sound of the water rushing up the pipes was so loud; I tried to tell her something, a story maybe, but she couldn’t hear me over the sound. When the hot, wet pressure hit my head, I gasped. My scalp tingled. Shh, she said. So I was quiet.
When she’d finished and had dried my hair, she swiveled the chair and let me face the mirror. I could still see some of my dark hair underneath, but the top was orange. It was orange and scratchy against my cheek.
But I was quiet like a grave as her teacher swept past us and on to the next student station.
I spent long hours staring at that hair in the mirror at home. And the longer I looked at it, the more something in my gut stirred. I wasn’t that girl in the mirror, this double with no history, no heritage. I no longer had hair the same color and weight as my Hispanic grandfather’s. Even my skin had begun to lose its history – it didn’t look sandblasted and olive anymore. Instead, it looked jaundiced against the backdrop of orange hair. I didn’t look like the grandchild of a migrant worker anymore. I didn’t look Anglo. I didn’t look like anyone. And when I cried silently into my pillow, I didn’t sound like anyone either.
At school on Monday, I looked different than I had on Friday and the other kids spit wet, wadded paper at my back. One boy pulled my hair in the hallway and more than the fear of pain, I feared that he would feel how scratchy it was. I was afraid that he would think I was gross, afraid that he would tell everyone.
I sneaked to the office after third-period social studies, the class where Lauren Flickanger had turned around from the front row and had sneered at me: Nice hair, she said. I bit my tongue until it bled (Be quiet, be quiet) and escaped at the bell. When I got home, I sat beside my mother on the couch and cried. She petted my scratchy hair. Shh, she said, shh. The boys will like it when you’re older.
Don’t tell them anything, she said. Don’t tell them about your grandpa. Don’t tell them about tortillas. Don’t tell them about the jalapenos that Grandpa grows in the basement like contraband. Don’t use the “m” word. But, Mom, Grandpa is a Mexi- Shh. Don’t tell them. Do you want to have your hair pulled again?
My roots disappeared, bleached and shriveled with too-frequent visits to the salon where my mother had gotten a job after she had finished school. You didn’t like the blonde, she asked, let’s try red this time. It didn’t matter to me; it was all a lie.
She’d dry my hair and before I could even see what she’d done, she would parade me around to her coworkers and show them my new hair. I was to keep my face down, show off the hair. I felt naked, blank, silent. So I’d stay mute and my cheeks would redden at the attention. On the way home, my mother would pet my hair and tell me what a polite little girl I was.
I’d try not to remember the time when I was young and my aunt had visited from Arizona. My grandpa had just made me a new leather vest then with a desert scene etched into the back. The leather felt like Grandpa’s skin and it smelled like his hands. I had put it on and had run out into the living room. I spun around in a circle in front of my aunt so she could see the scene on the back. Grandpa grew up there, I said.
Later, my mother took me into my bedroom. Hush, she said, good little girls don’t show off.
I was fifteen the first time I made my own decision about my hair.
This stiff orange mass, this invader on my scalp that made my neck itch – it had to go. Mom said she’d dye it. You want it darker, she asked, how about auburn? Shorter? We can take it to your chin. I shook my head. I wanted it gone.
I was tired of what it said about me. I was tired of her making me bland, of my identity being washed down the sink with too-hot water.
Spiked. My hair would be spiked and dark. Start over.
I asked to face the mirror as my mother began to clip at my hair. I could see her frown as the scissors snipped with their soft, silver sound. I could see the color of migrant heritage return to my skin as the orange-ness fell away from around my face. And I could see the straw gathering on the floor, under the hydraulic pump beneath my feet.
I felt small as my head grew lighter upon my shoulders. But I felt strong. I felt less like a girl who gave in so easily to others. But I didn’t feel like a boy either. I felt androgynous. Androgynous and clean-slate and beautiful for the first time. For the first time, my hair was for me.
I sat silent as she clipped down to my exposed roots and I could see my grandfather again in my cheekbones, in the shape of my lips. I wore a plain tee and ripped blue jeans and work boots. You look like a boy, my mother said. I grinned. We’ll have to talk, she said.
Don’t wear flats – take my heels, she said. Don’t leave the house without make-up. Don’t leave without calling that nice boy you brought over last week – I’ll give you two some money to see a movie. Why don’t you talk to boys more? Don’t say the “l” word. But, Mom, I am a lesb- Shh. What will the boys think?
I visited my mom the other day. We talk a lot these days. Sometimes, when she’s feeling especially down, I let her do a little something to my hair. I have red streaks now, color layered over bleach. I don’t like it, but it made her happy. She disapproves of a lot that I do, but she’s learned to bite her tongue. She tries not to ask why I’m growing out my hair these days. It was so cute when you had it short, she says. I wonder if short-and-spiky is trendy now. Or if maybe she remembers our shared past a little differently than I do.
She stays quiet more these days. I speak more. I’m finding a voice, and sometimes it cracks and sometimes it’s shaky and sometimes it sounds just like my grandfather’s, rough with sand and self. I think she likes to hear me talk, likes it when I tell her things about myself.
During this last visit, we sat beside each other on the couch and I asked her what I’d been wondering for over a decade.
“When did you first dye your hair,” I asked her.
She frowned and looked away from me, toyed with the cat dozing in her lap. “When I was fourteen,” she said, “the first time they called me a spic.”
And when she cried, I could see my grandfather in her face. I took her head and held it to my shoulder; I petted her stiff, red hair.
“Shh,” I said, “shh.”
Community Grand Prize Winner, catchingspirit:
It wasn't that I was unaware, not completely. But it had always been relegated to health classes and vague academic or hypothetical discussion. "What would you do if...?" "Did you know her mother's cousin's friend had it?" "Michelle's mother died of it." They're all so comfortably removed, distant.
That only lasts until it's you, your friend - or your mother. I was visiting my mother when I saw the book open on the table. It was about coping with breast cancer. It was hers. (Was she breast cancer's?) I was startled, and stared at it for quite awhile.
It had an attractive cover, that book. We must try to make the disease seem like less of a monster, pretty and feminine in pink, as if this will tame it into a sniffle or a cold. Even leaving it out was a pretty and feminine way for her to tell us without saying it. I didn't say it, either. Instead, I eyed the book and that cover - and tried to remember its title to look for it later.
Suddenly, instead of a vague awareness that breast cancer exists, it colored everything. The world seemed pink. Posters urging women to have their mammograms, awareness posters, even those little foil tops on my strawberry yoghurt (pink again) sometimes displaying promotions offering funding for breast cancer research. I started eating it for breakfast every day and saving those foil circles like kids save the box-tops from their sugar-cereals that turn your milk pink (of course).
My mother's prognosis was good, she told us. A nurse, she has always been careful of her health, and they had diagnosed her early after a regular mammogram. She was responding well to treatment (there are always treatments - outdated treatments, reliable treatments, effective treatments, experimental treatments) and had actually enjoyed going shopping for a wig. It looked good, I had to admit; when I first saw it, I thought I had been mistaken about when her therapy was starting, or that she had already grown her natural hair back out again afterward. (Or that she didn't have cancer after all - if only!)
I began reading everything I could find about it. Not just the sentimental "How to Cope" writings, but the medical articles as well. The textbooks. They listed causes. Which had caused hers? She didn't drink often, limited to perhaps a glass of wine with dinner. I couldn't recall many family members diagnosed with it. Her complexion was already too fair for tanning, and her weight seemed unlikely to be a factor, either. Why was it important to know? Time could not be reversed to undo it.
The books spouted a stream of facts and figures, but none of them had what I needed to know: how long? Norms, averages, means - statistics - were useless; I wanted to know when I'd have to say goodbye to her, to somehow prepare for it when I could never be ready for it. Frustrated, I finally admitted there was no way to tell, not for certain, and I closed the books and magazines.
It could be years - many years. We could hope. Mom did everything right: exercise, doctor's appointments, treatments. She wanted to be here for us as much as we wanted her with us. Our vocabulary expanded to include "radiation", "chemotherapy", and "experimental" whenever we spoke. I tried to keep in touch better; when I didn't, I felt guilty. Not burdensome guilt, but regret.
I looked down at my shoes in embarrassment after an abbreviated phone-call to my parents. The shoe salesman when I bought them had asked me whether I wanted traditional shoelaces or a pair of pink ribbons they also came with. I'd chosen the ribbons; they were cuter and more fun. Mom had often dressed me in pink when I was younger; it was a good color for me, claimed Color Me Beautiful, the latest fashion fad at the time. But now, "now you know there won't be forever," they seemed to say.
Cliché, to say this makes the time we do have sweeter, but it does. All of this opened all of our eyes. To tell the truth, mom and I had never gotten along the way I think we'd both like to. I've never doubted she loves me, and I hope she would say the same. But our personalities clash, shattering and splitting off into arguments and tears, usually due to misunderstandings. I've realized lately how very like her I am in my emotions, which always makes it difficult to make up.
Now, I was unwilling to let that rob me of my mother when the cancer was already trying to. Disagreements were no longer arguments. We watched T.V., went to the museum, saw the lights at the zoo. Hugs were more frequent. Gifts from her became more sentimental remembrances: a ring I'd always admired growing up, a patchwork cloth sewn from my babyhood clothes. Sometimes it seemed not as though the cancer did not exist, but as though it could be put aside; we were compelled to fight it, to do our best, but we were not compelled to let it cripple us. We'd all become a little stronger.
Mom continued to do well. Her hair was growing back, a distinguished frosted color that I secretly loved; I thought it was very striking. There were difficulties, but she bore them with an admirable good humor bordering on stoicism. If she was tired, she rested. If she was nauseous, she stayed home from work. If her fingers hurt - they had swelled up with arthritis the doctors were unwilling to predict the duration of - she avoided sewing. Her granddaughter, my niece, was born - a little baby girl all in pink. We were thrilled to watch Mom dote on the newcomer to the family.
As for me, I've decided to think about upcoming milestones, especially mom's five-year remission anniversary. The future. I'm going to plan my life on the hope that everything will turn out well, not the fear that it won't. Mom used to be famous among her friends for planning parties herself, always organized around a theme; we used to tease her about carrying them too far in her meticulous attention to every detail of each one. I think she'll appreciate Pink.