AMERICAN GOTHIC
c1995 Airweaver

When my mother died recently, I was suddenly called home to help settle the estate. I found myself exploring familiar scenes of my childhood, and found the attic particularly intriguing, since it was crowded with many apparently long-forgotten family heirlooms. Among them was a carved, rosewood box of the type that used to be called a ladyís 'casket' in the days before the Civil War changed the meaning of that word forever. Inside the casket I discovered what I immediately realized to be a thick, and incredibly long braid of human hair. It proved to measure some eight feet in length. Age had not diminished its rich luster. It was only after I read the faded old journal found on a nearby shelf, however, that I began to understand something of its significance.

From the diary of my great-grandmother, Amanda Goodchild (1870-1953):

March 13, 1884:
Was late for school this morning as Mama did my hair herself, which she often does after itís been washed the day before. "My, Amanda, you do have such pretty hair! So lush and smooth. Just like rich cream." I admit this makes me feel smug, which Rev. Meeker says I mustnít be, but I do have nice hair. I know the girls are all jealous of it. Why, hardly any of them can even sit on hers!

Asbury Park, June 23, 1889:
At last I am married to dear Henry. What a darling he is! The wedding was divine. Everybody said so. Mother said I looked beautiful, and I guess I did in that dress - heaven knows how much it cost Papa - and my hair braided with Henryís pearls. This is my first night of married life and we are here together in this lovely hotel on the Jersey shore. I will remember it forever.

June 24, 1889:
The first night with Henry. He was very gentle when we were first together. He let down my hair for me and brushed it tenderly. He said how lovely it looked in the gaslight, and I guess it does, since people are always complementing me on it. Itís never been cut, so it hangs to my knees when I brush it out. Back home our maid Elsie had charge of it. She would often say, "Good gracious, Miss Amanda, what gorgeous hair you have, and so long too!"

New Rochelle, October 5, 1889:
Our new little home is coming along splendidly. We spent last evening alone quietly together. Henry brushed and caressed my hair for the better part of an hour, as he has come to do. It feels good and Henry says it helps him relax.

May 22, 1890:
I am so sorry Henry will not be here for our first anniversary next month, but he was so nice tonight and fondled my hair with extra devotion. He noticed that it seems to have grown a bit longer and that makes him happy. I will try to take extra good care of it, since it seems to give him so much pleasure. It really is pretty hair.

September 30, 1890:
For some odd reason Henry wanted to measure my hair before I put it up this morning. It turned out to be over five feet long, but I could have told him that, since it comes well past my knees. But Henry likes to be precise.

November 4, 1891:
I felt rather sickly most of the day. Henry has been away on business, and I feel rather lonely. Elsie has come to be with us, which comforts me some, but I wish Henry were back. Elsie commented on how much longer my hair has gotten since she last saw me.

November 5, 1891:
Had headaches most of the day. Elsie thinks a baby may be on its way. But my head feels heavy, and I think it might be all this hair. I may finally cut it, at least a bit. Iíve had it down all day and it warms me some in this cold weather, but there is really so much of it.

November 8, 1891:
Henry absolutely forbids it. He returned last night and my head was still aching. I told him I was thinking of cutting my hair and thought the weight might be the cause of my migraines. It is getting rather heavy. He said that was ridiculous. "Now come to bed. I want to let down your hair and bury my face in its rich perfume."

November 10, 1891:
Felt much better today, and Henry was very sweet. He bought me a new hairbrush with an ivory handle and helped me with it in the evening. He says he had never seen lovelier hair in his life. It does feel good when he strokes it, which he did the better part of an hour. The sound of the brush sweeping all up and down my body is very soothing.

March 22, 1892:
I got out of bed this morning and took a close look at myself in the mirror. Then let down my hair. My, it really has grown since I first married Henry! Why, itís almost down to my heels. No wonder Elsie has been having so much trouble with it of late. I think I should cut it back, maybe to my waist, but will have to ask Henry first.

March 24, 1892:
I asked Henry at the breakfast table this morning about cutting my hair. He asked why I would want to do that. "Well," I said, "It does make a lot of extra work for Elsie with it this long, and I think it may be why I got those migraines." He said that was what Elsie was paid for, and what did my hair have to do with it. How would he know?

December 14, 1892:
A cold and snowy day and Henry spent much of it playing with my hair. How can I help but not be pleased? He goes on and on about how wonderfully long it is getting. It now covers me from tip to toe when I let him unbraid it. He has me sit in the straightback chair and then brushes the length of it down over the back and works until he is satisfied the entire column is satin smooth the way he likes it. He then has me stand and gets down on his knees to smooth the heavy bottom section brushing against my calves and ankles until he thinks every strand is just so. I notice my hair just touches the carpet.

July 28, 1893:
A hot night and couldnít sleep. I got out of bed early and stepped on my hair. It was rather painful. I know my hair has continued growing and you donít notice from day to day. But then it has never once been cut, and I know it grows quite fast. It is beginning to bother me once more. I wish it didn't mean so much to Henry.

November 30, 1893:
I surprised Henry by washing my hair this morning with that new shampoo Elsie has found. He commented on how particularly full and soft it seemed as he was releasing it tonight and letting its folds settle against my body. But when he got on his knees to brush the lower portion, he suddenly stopped and told me to stand on the parlor stool, explaining, "I canít do this right unless itís all hanging free. You can see the pile of it on the floor there beneath your feet." I felt a bit self-conscious, but Henry seemed in heaven. "Oh, God," he cried, "Your hair is so wonderful and long I can hardly stand it!"

May 27, 1894:
A beautiful spring day at last, but I almost had a most dreadful accident in the open carriage when the wind caught my hair. It almost caught in the wheels of the conveyance. It was Henry, sitting opposite, who first noticed my hair slipping to one side and the wind blowing it over the edge. I must be more careful to bind it up tightly when we are in the open. It is just one more problem with having such very long hair.

August 5, 1894:
I wish Henry would let me cut my hair a tiny, tiny bit, but he says he loves it as it is. "Look at youself," he says. "All that glorious hair makes you. I donít want you to cut it. Ever. Itís the most precious thing in the world." But I can never wear it down anymore without stepping all over it. And whatís the point of hair if you canít show it off?

June 23, 1895:
Our sixth wedding anniversary. Henry bought me the most wonderful vanity box, with combs and brushes. Then I noticed the empty compartment. The scissors are missing.

October 2, 1895:
Rain most of the day and very humid. In this weather I canít do a thing with my hair, which is really beginning to depress me. It is so much longer than I am. When Elsie tried to brush it this morning it just seemed to bush out all over in the damp. It took her forever to bind up. Cursed hair!

August 3, 1896:
Why canít I get Henry to be reasonable about my hair? How long does he want it? Here it is dragging across the carpet as if it had a life of its own. I can never wear it flowing around me like a friendly cape as I used to do. It now almost mocks me with its profusion and weighs me down. It is as if it had come to chastise me for the vanity of my youth when I used to think it was so beautiful and would spend hours before the mirror brushing it and admiring its lushness.

March 16, 1897:
Henry wanted to measure my hair again last night as we were getting ready for bed. So it could all hang free, I had to stand on the bedside table. It turned out to be well over seven feet long, which seemed to please him very much. What does he love more? Me or my hair?

August 22, 1897:
I have decided, Henry or no Henry, I will be rid of this wretched hair! There is so much of it I can scarcely keep it pinned on my head anymore, and Elsie is at her wits end over it. She has even said so: "Miss Amanda, your hair has gotten so long I donít know what to do with it anymore."

August 28, 1897:
Henry caught me last night in the kitchen, where I had gone in search of something to finally free myself from these bothersome tresses. It would be such a relief. I had found a pair of sharp pruning shears in the sideboard and was just letting down my hair in the moonlight when Henry came in. "Just look at yourself with all that magnificent hair flowing around you against the moonlight," he said. "Is it any wonder I donít want you to ever do any thing with such a wonderful possession? But what are you doing down here at this time of night?" I gathered the shears up under my nightgown and murmured something about being unable to sleep. We returned to our chamber, me dragging my long mane of hair behind me as if it were a bridal train, and we returned to our beds. I lay there a long time wondering if I would be a prisoner to my hair for the rest of my life. I returned the shears to the kitchen the next morning.

January 9, 1898:
I am so bored with my hair I could scream. And I am also - dare I say it? - getting a bit tired of Henryís little nighttime rituals. Almost every night he now insists I climb up on the table and stand there so he can brush the ends dangling free beneath my feet. He loves to watch my hair sway loose like that as he moves the brush up and down, up and down, trying to cox ever greater luster, ever greater smoothness. "Ah," he will finally say, "there is not a single strand out of place in the entire length of your tress. Look how utterly even it is!" He has installed bright electric lights to better display its sheen. He has moved them around experimentally until he was satisfied. "Look at that. The whole column of your hair is now reflecting the light. All eight majestic feet of it is shimmering at once!" But what pleasure is there in this for me who must carry this weight bound up the rest of the day like a beast of burden? Henry says we will soon be needing a taller table, which pleases him.

June 5, 1898:
Little Henry was born this day about noon. He is a lamb, but I am drained. I lie in this bed surrounded by the torrents of my hair and wonder about the future.

July 29, 1898:
Henry measured my hair again this morning, and it is well past the eight foot mark.

December 14, 1898:
I stood before the mirror this morning and tried to do something with my hair. It was all over the place and I tripped over it more than once as it twined around my feet. It took both Henry and Elsie to help me wash it today for Christmas, and then I sat before the fire so it can dry, which takes forever, covered in this wet, cold mantle. Perhaps I could singe part of it off in the fire pretending it was an accident, but I have neither the courage nor the nerve.

February 12, 1899:
Oh, tragic day! The telegram came around noon with news of the accident. How can I live without Henry? His son and I both need him so. The one thing I do know: tomorrow I will have Elsie cut my hair.

February 13, 1899:
Today was the day I was going to have Elsie cut off my too-long hair, but she says I should wait until after Henryís funeral. I guess that is only right since Henry loved it so. Yet, he was the one who made it such a torment in my life by never allowing me to cut it so much as in inch. He must have known how much work this eight feet of hair had come to cost me. And poor Elsie, who had to look after it as it kept growing progressively longer month by month, year by year.

February 14, 1899:
Itís late and Iím very tired after the long, sad day. Poor Henry went to his maker on Valentineís Day. I looked at myself in the mirror at bedtime and saw myself framed in my cloak of cascading hair, which spreads out across the floor in all its profusion. There is so much of it that it practically holds me captive. This is the hour Henry would have arrived and tell me to stand on the table for its nightly brushing. He seemed to find such inordinate pleasure in the fact that it had become over eight feet long. He used to go on and on about its beauty, to stroke it by the hour in hopes of urging it to even greater volume. As if I needed that! I used to be so proud of it, but now it seems even longer than ever and to mock me as it flows around me, burying me in its profusion. There is so much of it. I pick it up and spread it out like wings around me. The light plays off it, but it means nothing to me.

February 15, 1899:
A new life begins today for me and Little Henry. I braided my hair with Elsieís help one last time tonight as tight as I could before going to bed. It seemed to take forever, slapping against the floor of my room as we tried to twist the sections into a unified whole, and Elsie, with her patient hands attempting to bind it up. I can see the ends of it swirling beneath me feet, the loose strands flowing down my back and out into the dark. "Never mind, Elsie, this will be the last time." At last we were successful, and I inspected the results closely. I have future plans for my hair and was pleased how evenly we had managed to braid it. Every hair seems to be in perfect place. Henry would have been pleased. I slept with it carefully that night, the braid sliding like silk between my toes.

February 16, 1899:
At last it is done! Today Elsie unpinned my long, thick braid, which is so much longer than I am, one last time and let it fall to the floor. It is so heavy I can hear it when it lands. She said, "Miss Amanda, there was a time when I would never have dreamed of doing this, but it has become the bane of both of us... how much should I be cutting?" she inquired. "Letís be done with it all!" I cried, lifting up the heavy queue and pointing to a spot around the nape of my neck. "Oh, Miss Amanda, donít say that! Just think. You have such wonderful hair. Iíve always said so. Just look at it. Donít sacrifice it all. What if I were to cut it somewhere around your knees? Then I could unravel it for you and brush it out just like I did in the old days." But I was adamant. "No, Elsie, I have made up my mind. Now that Henry is gone I want to be freed from it all." I dropped the plait, which slide across the bare floor like a plump water snake. What choice did Elsie have? She reluctantly picked up the shears and bit with difficulty into the corpulent braid just below my ears. I braced myself and shut my eyes. She cut again and again. The heavy plait swayed against my back, as if it had a life of its own and was putting up a resistance. Elsie worked with a frenzy, the scissors chewing into my hair. I could feel it vibrate all up and down my body, against my legs, swinging to and fro, reluctant to let go. Elsie continued applying the scissors. Then suddenly I heard it drop to the floor. I looked down at the coil lying there as if at a stranger, a long braided mass of coiled hair. I gathered it up, tied off the ends of the braid, and have placed it in my hope chest to be a memorial to dear Henry. Henry, who had loved my long hair to distraction. Elsie cried. My head feels strange and oddly light.

February 17, 1899:
The cutting of my hair has proved more traumatic than I would have thought. It is the oddest sensation to suddenly lose the yards of heavy hair you have had since childhood. I can't make a move without reaching out a hand to draw back some phantom strand. My neck finds it difficult to balance without the weight of that overly-long mane. Little Henry looked at me strangely when I visited him in the nursery this morning.

February 18, 1899:
When I saw myself in the mirror this morning it was like looking at a stranger. My head seems so much smaller! My hair just about touches my shoulders and I have been able to pin it in a modest hignon, but it is not particularly attractive. Perhaps I was overly hasty. Elsie is in mourning, not over her late employer it seems, but over my crowning glory. "We need not have cut so much!" She doesnít say it, but I can sense it.

February 22, 1899:
I had a scene with Mother today. "What have you done to your hair, child? All those beautiful tresses, gone! I spent years of loving care nurturing it, delighting in its perfection, and now you have gone and done this!"

* * *

Envoy:
The journal of my great-grandmother, from which I have quoted, continues up until the end of the year 1902, but there is no further mention of her remarkable hair, the discovery of which prompted me to publish the above extracts. I have found no subsequent volumes.

While in the attic I did, however, change across a letter that, if nothing else, confirms the power of my great-grandmotherís hair during its glory years. How it came to be there, I can only guess, but the signature is suggestive.


August 17, 1896

Dear Jack,
Have you been so lucky as to have come across the divine Amanda? She was here at the hotel this weekend with her husband, Henry Brightmore. Lucky bugger. They say she has the most remarkable hair that ever was. It is reported to be as long as Mathusalaís beard. Wish I could see it down! I came across her in the lobby this afternoon and saw the pile on her head, which was awesome. I mean great mounds of it. Henry was talking about it in the club last term and in raptures. Oh, to be in his shoes!

All my best,
Edward Goodchild


Photographs of Amanda Goodchild, all of them taken after the turn of the century, after she had remarried, show her with long hair severely tided in a bun. She had clearly let it grow again, but I doubt it ever reached the imperial lengths it reached while she was married to Henry Brightmore. I look again at the braid lying in the box, the casket, that hope chest. It shimmers and glows in the light. It is beautiful hair. It reflects the light with undeniable radiance, but is lifeless. How would it have looked gracing the head of the lovely young woman who had grown it? I suddenly understand the power it held over Henry.


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