I am watching pink streaks lighten the gray dawn, deepening and glowing as the minutes pass above silhouetted firs, brightness glowing from the bottom, skyward. I think about my mother, seated in her chair facing sliding glass doors to the porch, her face towards the light, keeping vigil, watching the birds, the weather, the slice of the world that she could see, framed by those glass doors in Eagles Mere.
I always wanted always to look like my mother. I don’t. She was an elfin thing, match-stick thin, her skin inclined to tan and brown, mine inclined to burn and peel. While she had a chest, the rest of her was lean. I am not. I have the chest, but I am more substantial, zaftig, than my slender mom. Mom was a jock, a photographer, a carpenter. I married the photographer and carpenter. Growing up, people always told my older sister, Lee, how much she looked like our mother. We knew it was a compliment. Now, from a distance, occasionally, I mistake my sister for our mom.
Mom was a tomboy, disdaining the starched gown she had to wear in 1939 at her older sister’s wedding—the Wedding of the Decade, according to the New York Times. She and her first cousin, Connie, look positively surly in a formal wedding photograph: two irritated eleven-year-olds in white organza and blue velvet sashes, holding bouquets of delphiniums and Ophelia roses, the newspaper clipping tells me. What is an Ophelia rose anyway? Mom did not care for her elder sister. A few years later, though, at her debut, at her wedding, or snapped in candids, Mom was a looker, her pageboy softly curled at her shoulders, sporting a sweater set, a satin gown. She hated clothes, but she could wear them until she gave up society and made the choice to wear elastic waist pants and turtlenecks as her uniform. I love clothes, love to shop, dress up. She indulged me, always, funding my adventures, but glad when she didn’t have to accompany me.
Some years ago, my sister instructed me that it was my job to get Mom to wear a bra and not to wear a turtleneck under the new dress Lee had bought for her to attend her great niece’s Christening. “No problem,” I assured Lee, “I’ve got this.” Ha. Mom, at eighty, bested me. She went to the church braless, with a turtleneck under her pretty new dress, a slash of lipstick her only nod to beauty.
If I had inherited her face, maybe I wouldn’t miss her so much. I think I got her sense of humor–sometimes cutting, often hilarious. I know I have her sense of family. My brother and I got her asthma and eczema, which meant getting her time, too, when we were little. I’ve also inherited a cracked nail on the fourth finger of my right hand; Mom had this, too—a peculiar genetic anomaly that my sister does not share. When I have my nails painted, they have to take special care of that nail; if it splits too far, it hurts. They wrap it or paint it with glue to make it safe. Mom’s fingernails, at the end of her life, were ridged with black. I don’t know why. We painted her nails for her then. She did not go in for beauty rituals, except having her hair set and mostly applying lipstick without ever looking in the mirror. But she did allow us to paint her nails.
My big inheritance came after she died. At the hairdresser a few years ago, Nicole, blow-drying my hair, asked, “Who did your streak?”
I looked up from my phone. “My what?”
“Your streak. This silver streak.” She held a lock of my hair in her brush.
“Oh, that?” I laugh. “That’s from my mom.”
“It’s amazing. A lot of women have them done, you know.”
I didn’t know. Mom went grey with a white streak swooping back from the center of her forehead, just like her mother. My sister went grey the same way. Mom’s hair was almost jet black, darker by a few shades than Lee’s hair or my own. In a photograph from the ’40s, my grandmother stands in the garden with her son, Jimmy, headed off to war, never to come home. Her brown hair—she must be in her forties, then, is streaked at the center—skunk-like. But my streak arrives on the side in my 50’s. This gift—cockeyed, feels as if it’s from her–as if she knows how much I miss her as if she’s reaching down to pat the side of my head, to silver me.
I look up silver streaks. Why do some of us look like Cruella Devil, and some of us don’t? There are a lot of hits for a Gene Wilder film. I keep searching. Nothing I learn feels worth learning. The streak is a condition called poliosis. When polio broke out in the 30s, her parents kept Mom in Eagles Mere until the first autumn frost to cut down on the chance that she would get it. Her health was frail, her lungs weak. She wore garlic at her throat to keep away the germs. And vampires. As a little girl, she wore her dark hair in a bob, huge round glasses floating on her face.
This condition, poliosis, has nothing to do with paralysis or vaccines. It has to do with melanin and its absence in a clump of hair. A clump is not a streak.
Our dad turned prematurely grey in his mid-forties. I think, though, his genes aren’t a factor for all of us, the women, on the other side, lining the generations with their streaks.
Other causes of white hair include tumors, fungal infections, or piebaldism. Piebald deer in Eagles Mere make me shudder; half white, half red. I cringe when I see them. I hate all of these words. A mutation of the KT gene—whatever that is—it makes a signal protein within its cells, then mutates. The hair never gets its instructions to make pigment. Most people with piebaldism, Google tells me, have the streak my grandmother, mother, and sister have, beginning at the forehead and sweeping back. And mine is on the side. I’m not quite like them. Again.
I sit at breakfast with the little girls one morning, my hair loose, a rarity at school.
“Ms. Klotz,” Lulu says shyly.
“Yes, Lu,” I answer.
“It’s like the fairies kissed you. Your hair is silver.”
I grin at her. I quite like being associated with fairy magic, much preferable to Cruella and her puppy murdering predilections, much preferable to piebaldism, because I do not want to be bald—ever.
Why is my streak on the side, not at my forehead? I do not know.
Eventually, Mom and my sister went all the way gray; Grannie’s hair turned almost snow white. Lee wears her hair short; it’s almost all grey now, the streak invisible. My own hair is still long, piled on top of my head usually, grey and silver streaks twining, witchily, through the brown.
Grey, the internet tells me, happens when the amount of melanin in our hair diminishes. I noticed the other day that there’s a lot of it throughout my hair—like a watercolor wash muting the brown. I prefer the drama of a silver streak to the gradual diminishment of color.
When I look up, the rose streaks have vanished; while the sun is rising, the clouds are mostly grey, undifferentiated. If I hadn’t looked when I did, I would have missed those magic streaks.
Photo @Julie Anderson All Rights Reserved