Saturday, November 30, 2013

Uh, Nuthin'

We only saw my paternal grandfather a few days a year, mostly on Christmas and Easter for a painful hour or so of silence at his home, punctuated by the ticking of the grandfather and mantle clocks. When the grandfather clock struck the hour, I was relieved by the way it cut through the tension in the room.
Dad began each conversation with his father the same way, “How are you, Pop?
My grandfather responded each time in the same way as he paced the floor in shoes two sizes too large, which caused him to slide his feet across the carpet.
“Uh, I feel like a bum.”
I wondered if they were the only English words he knew, though he had lived in the US for over fifty years by that time. Dad spoke a funny broken Italian with English words liberally thrown in to communicate with him. I didn’t understand most of what was said.
Ma would sit uncomfortably on the edge of the sofa, her purse in her lap, and her ankles crossed. I think she must have been poised for a hasty exit. Named by my paternal relatives as an outsider and a foreigner, she was not welcomed by my grandfather.
Aunt Josephine would place a dining chair in the arch between the living and dining rooms, where she would sit primly, her apron the symbol of her familial role as caretaker. She took care of her father, then three of her brothers over the course of her life. Her resentment was a fine mist on her skin.
We children were to be seen and not heard. I was a shy child but rambunctious, too, and sitting silently with my hands in my lap did not sit well with me. I hated the smell of the place, too, like the whole house was preserved in mothballs.
My grandfather died when I was around eight. I remember the phone call and my parents getting ready for the funeral a few days later. Ma would not let us attend. She did not want us to be exposed to a funeral, or grief, or death. Maybe she recalled attending her own father’s funeral when she was but four. Maybe we weren’t invited.
I remember not feeling anything except a tug of sadness for my dad.
For Aunt Josephine it was a brief time of freedom to do some of the things she wanted to accomplish in life before she had to take on the care of her brothers. One of those things was to travel. She started going on vacations with another single woman named Judy. One year, well into her seventies, she traveled to the Liuzzi family’s home country of Italy and visited with cousins.
Aunt Josephine didn’t speak to me for years after I brought Ronald home to my father’s funeral (for new readers, I am white and my husband Ronald is black). There would be no sitting on the edge of the sofa for him, waiting to make his hasty exit. As soon as he felt the discomfort of not being welcome, he took a brief nap, and got right back on the road to Syracuse. My father’s funeral was my first, and I can only say that Ma’s idea of protecting me from death and grief had failed.
Aunt Josephine started talking to me again shortly after the birth of our twins. Perhaps her drive to Syracuse when they were five months old was to verify that they had indeed not been born as one white and one black baby, like the twins she had read about in her weekly tabloid.
After that we stayed in contact. She carried on the tradition my grandfather had begun with a little twist. Every time I called her and asked her what was going on, she’d respond, “Uh, nuthin’.”
My daughter Cara carries on this same tradition. When she calls, I’ll ask, “What’s up?”
“Uh, nuthin’.”
That same malaise crawled on me. I feel like a bum. I’m too tired and too useless to do anything about it because this world is exhausting sometimes. I feel silent and invisible. It’s not the big things, the death of so and so, the surgery, the illness a close relative suffers from, or the lack of funds to do the desperately needed repair. It is the lack of humanity, the murders perpetrated on the innocent, the endless erring on the side of selfishness and greed rather than on the side of the greater good. Blindness and denial cloud the obvious. I feel that same discomfort I felt at my grandfather’s house – not being welcome and not wanting to be there anyway.
As individuals we can hope to make change for the positive, but at the end, the machine of mankind easily erases the path of one.
We’ve been watching Henry Louis Gates’ African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Each week I have to steel myself emotionally to hear much of what I already know. Each week finds me weeping anyway. I am too sensitive not to be moved by the images of injustice and hatred.
Ronald feels angry, validated, and hopeless. That makes me weep, too.
I feel like I don’t belong here in America, because I don’t want to belong to a society that raves about living in a post-racial world when racism is kicking and slapping minorities every day while making the divide larger and more impassable. It’s not good enough that a few have escaped the institutional and systemic racism that is woven into the fabric of our society. It’s not good enough that some people feel they aren’t racist and therefore are not part of the problem. It’s not good enough when white people and some black people say that bringing up racism is what perpetuates it because they are in denial on every single level and don’t care to be educated otherwise.
I’ve cried watching each episode of African-Americans, but none more than the episodes that focused on my lifetime – the awful events that shaped those of us growing up in the mid-twentieth century. The fire hosings, the lynchings, the inequality of our criminal justice system, and, later, the return of Jim Crow after Katrina and the election of our first mixed race president. I am ashamed, and I don’t want to live in a country like this. Not a single person should be accepting of this divisive state in which the value of lives is measured by the color of one’s skin and gender.
I felt the surge of the movements for civil rights, black power, and women’s rights, just as I came of age. Now, in mid-life, I see how all those advances have been engineered out of existence. We cannot be silent. We have to fight. We cannot sit idly by. We are as guilty of doing nothing as if we were the ones, like George Zimmerman, wielding the guns that slay black men and black children every single day or the cops that use profiling and the justice system that uses stiffer sentences to incarcerate black men.
I worry about the new generations and their acceptance of what is; how they are in denial in more ways than one; how they don’t think the erasure of equality (before we truly reached the final goal of a post-racial and post-sexist society) affects them and their wellbeing. But it does in wages that do not equal a living wage; in the removal of benefits including pensions and healthcare; in the closed avenue to upward mobility; and in the expanding definition of what constitutes poverty and who is ensnared by it.
African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross ought to be mandatory viewing for all school children, at every college, in every workplace as part of diversity training, in every religious institution that purports to teach that one should love one’s neighbor as you love yourself. Every parent should be required to watch it and learn to understand what white power and privilege mean to this country in which its very history and success are built on the backs of those considered less than.
Maybe then I can uncross my feet, relax a little, enjoy the conversation, and feel welcome to be part of this country, along with all the others who have been disenfranchised due to their race and/or gender. Right now, when asked what are we doing to fight for equality, I have a single answer, “Uh, nuthin’.”

I was eleven when this historic show of black power was broadcast across the world. I still feel it's impact and sadness that our new generations seem to have no sense of its importance.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Gray Matters

I run my fingers through my hair as I stare into the bathroom mirror, and there it is, the gray beneath the dark brown, the truth beneath the lie.  Many people think I look young for 56, but would they say the same thing if they saw the true color of my hair?

This is what my hair looks like when I lift it up. See that gray?

A few weeks ago, I got tired of the lie. I had thoughts of chopping off my two-foot-long hair and going with a pixie cut. Growing out gray is not easy. The infamous skunk stripe lies as much as dyed hair does. Maybe it shouts, “I don’t care about my looks,” or “I’m too cheap to cover my gray,” or “I am sickly,” or “I am old, and it doesn’t matter anymore.” I don’t think it would ever announce, “I’ve taken control of my emotions, and I am not ashamed to be me.”

This is what the world sees.

Ronald and I talked about my hair. We’ve talked about it a lot over the years during complicated, emotionally wrought discussions. How can they not be when each cares so deeply for the wellbeing of the other and yet has needs that also require attention?
Ronald, an artist, has captured me in photos, in oil, in plaster, and in the love letters he sent to me when I had to return to Albany for the first two summers after we met freshman year of college. Most men are visual when it comes to attraction to the opposite sex, but there is an aesthetic that further defines Ronald’s attraction. Flawless skin of certain hues that range from palest white to deepest brown but share a certain luminescence of tone. Large eyes, downturned mouth, and a small chin are other features that speak to him, as do a tiny waist, shapely legs and hips, and small breasts of a certain, perfect shape. I can see a woman with those features and know before he does that his head will track in her direction.
I don’t feel threatened by his looking, but validated.
I’m a feminist. I have been since I can remember. I want equal status. I want a career. I want to earn my own keep and not be someone’s property. I don’t want to be sexually objectified. I want equality in my marriage where I can contribute as an equal partner. My beliefs make my strong feelings about my hair and my tolerance of Ronald’s visual attractions seem out of place. My need for validation seems antithetical.
Yet they exist inside me, clashing and melding at once, seeming like a good mix that lends balance to the whole.
So after we had talked about my hair for the umpteenth time these last few years, I decided definitively to go gray, as if it is a journey to a destination. Part of what made it so definitive is that I’m having surgery at the end of the month on one of my feet, and hope to have the other foot done next month. It’s a huge undertaking that includes breaking and resetting bones. Painful, I’ve heard, but worth it, after bones shift and grow crooked and render one unstable while walking or standing. A welcome life change, so why not clean up all the things that are disabling?
Ronald agreed. I’ve been dyeing my hair since I was in my mid-thirties. He had been against it then. He loved the color of my hair, a mixture of browns, reds, golds, and the occasional grays, so much that he couldn’t imagine changing it. He didn’t think a bottle could ever capture the beauty he saw.
“If you dye a single hair on your head, I’ll know,” he averred.
I dyed it anyway. The hairdresser used a semi-permanent dye, very close to my real color. It took Ronald six months to notice. After that he was good with it. Close enough, I suppose.
Twenty years later, the ruse is tiring.  First it was every 8 weeks, then 5 weeks. Now I go every 4 weeks, and, even then, I feel anxious after week 3. Over the years I’ve gone from semi-permanent, to permanent, to demi-permanent after the permanent hair color nearly ruined my hair with its harsh chemicals.
I used to perm my hair in order to give it the body that fine, straight hair is lacking. Lots of people thought the unnaturally curly hair suited my Italian ethnicity. I guess curly hair is expected on a woman whose maiden name is Liuzzi, but I had to give up the perms in order to color – too many chemicals, my hairdresser up in Syracuse told me. It seemed a grand sacrifice at the time, but I’ve grown to enjoy my fine, straight hair, and I don’t miss the bottled curls.

Ronald and I celebrating our marriage. My hair is permed, not dyed, in this photo taken when I was twenty-six. 

Now I’m wondering if I will miss my “coffee bean” colored hair or if I will soon wonder why I ever stopped nature from taking its course.
I wanted to find out quickly what I thought about my real color. Hence my thought of “chopping it all off.” Hair grows back, after all, and mine grows quite quickly. One daughter, Cara, the one with very short hair, applauded my choice. The other, Mackenzie, the one with hair to the middle of her back, was silent.
I texted my hairdresser: “Don’t bother buying dye. Don’t freak out, but I want you to cut my hair short, a la Cara, as I decided to go gray.” She immediately dialed Cara to see if I had lost my mind.
At the bathroom mirror a week ago, I looked at Ronald using the straight razor to trim his salt and pepper mustache and beard, and I said, as I applied makeup, “Say good-bye to my hair. This time next week, I’m chopping it all off so I can skip the skunk stripe.”
He held the razor poised in the air as my statement sunk in. He said nothing then, but later that evening he said a lot.
“I support you going gray,” he said, “but I don’t understand why you want to cut your hair, too.”
‘The skunk stripe,” I said. It was so obvious to me. I couldn’t believe he didn’t get it.
“How bad can it be? It seems more drastic to do both.” Will he feel that way when his growing bald spot cries out for a total buzz? I’ve promised to let him know when it is time.
I had been so sure. I had photos on my laptop of cuts I thought would look good. Of course, they were on women all 30 years younger than I. When I drudged up a photo of Judi Dench sporting her pixie cut, I shuddered and promptly deleted it.

One of the photos I saved on my laptop so I could show my hairdresser how I wanted my hair cut short.

Here is Judi Dench. I think she is stunning but maybe I am not ready to admit that I look closer to her age than the age of the model above.

The next day I texted my hairdresser again, telling her I needed other suggestions because Ronald was emotional about the thought of short hair and going gray at the same time.  I respect his need to take one step at a time.
We had a text conversation, my hairdresser making suggestions such as highlighting, and I texting to say I’d think about it and finally suggesting I’d like her to cut my hair to the tops of my shoulders.
Yesterday Cara and I showed up for our appointments, and, as I sat in the chair, my hairdresser ran her hands through my hair, and the three of us talked about it.
“You are about 100% gray in front, about 50% at the crown, and a lot less in the back.  You won’t really know what it looks like until you grow it out.”
“I know,” I said.
Cara thought my new cut was adorable even with a luminescent crown of gray around the edge and through the part.
Ronald still hasn’t said a word about it, but sometimes that’s how we communicate in our equal partnership, through silence. It isn’t a condemnation; it’s a slow adjustment to change, not at all out of character. I've stunned him into silence on more than one occasion in our almost 40 years together, oftentimes with a dramatically different hair cut and just once with the announcement that we were having twins. I sit comfortably in the pocket of that silence, knowing that I am validated and he and I will be just fine even when the skunk stripe takes up residence on my head.

Let the skunk stripe begin! More on my journey to gray in future posts.