Iím a writer by profession. Not a particularly good writer I hasten to state, but at least it pays the bills and allows me to work at home much of the time, which I like, being somewhat of a homebody. Most of the work I do is actually ghostwriting, so letís just say Iím tolerably better at stringing words together than most of my employers.
My wife Helen and I live at the bottom of a steep road that leads up to the upper reaches of the Berkeley hills, and from my study at the front of our house you get a fine view of the Campanile on the campus down below and just a hint of the bay off in the distance. Weíve lived here for over twenty years and seen numerous interesting neighbors come and go, many of them professors, with which these hills seem to swarm. Of all our neighbors past or present, however, the ones I remember best would have be the Hanson sisters. There were three of them, and they and their parents lived up the hill from us until the youngest of them went East to college.
Thereís a bus stop on the corner of our street, which I can see plainly from my desk. Iíd never paid it much attention until one warm September morning several years back. It was the beginning of another school year, and I was suddenly aware of youthful voices out the window. I looked up from my typewriter (yes, this was before computers) to see three school girls ambling towards me down the hill. They seemed cheerful and without a care in the world. "These must be the daughters of that couple that just moved in up above us," I said to myself, and might have thought no more about it. But as the three of them past the window and turned at the corner to wait for the bus, I got a good look at their hair. Never had I seen anything like it! The oldest of the three, who must have been around 14 at the time, had her hair loose, and it cascaded down her back in thick, chestnut waves at least to her thighs. The end of it was blocked from view by the hedge in front of our house. Her younger sisters wore their hair up, carefully braided and coiled on top of their heads. Both had hair of deep auburn, and it was obviously very long too. The middle one, actually, reminded me a bit of the first girl I ever had a crush on back in the 4th grade. Jenny her name was, even if I canít recall her last name anymore. Jenny, with jet-black pigtails she could sit on. Watching those thick, glossy ropes flying around her in the wind while she was on the swings, used to drive me absolutely wild! I think Iíve wanted my women to have long hair ever since.
These girls were clearly far too young for me to take any more than passing interest in, but, as I say, I have always adored the look of long, healthy hair, and here it was in spades! This school year promised to provide delightful daily diversions; and so it proved to be. Every morning at 8:30 down the hill they would come for the bus, and every afternoon they would return as a group around 4:00.
It took me a long time that year to discover just how long their hair actually was. Each morning the younger two would pass with their hair freshly brushed and braided on their heads as before. On clear days, every strand would shimmer in the sun. Every morning the hedge would block the view of the bottom of the oldest sisterís chestnut mane. She continued to wear her hair falling free, held off her face by a broad satin band, just like Alice in Wonderland. Then one day the newspaper was late in arriving, and it was only by happy accident that I stepped out to retrieve it just as the trio was coming down the hill. I lingered, looking for imaginary aphids in the hedge while they passed, and I now had a clear view of the entire length of that magnificent chestnut hair: it was rich and full and stopped about two inches below her knees. It swayed heavily around her as if it had a life of its own. I also became aware that the braids of the youngest sister were unusually thick, more so that the middle one, who reminded me of my 'Jenny-on-the-swings.'
In those days, long hair was not an uncommon sight in our neck of the woods. This is Berkeley, after all, and the hippie culture was then in full flower. Why do you think I live in Berkeley? Every day you could go down to Telegraph Avenue and see cascades of the lovely stuff. Even my own adorable Helen (why do I say 'even'?) has beautiful waist-length hair. But somehow the Hanson sisters were different. Perhaps it was because they were so young and innocent. Or perhaps it was because they were neighbors. No, it wasnít these things. It was simply that it was the most perfect hair I had ever seen.
During the next three years, I enjoyed beginning each workday waiting for the girls to board their bus. I began to dread the thought that one year the Hansons might move. Or that the eldest would get her driverís license and be assigned the job of delivering her sisters to school. Worse still was the thought that the trio might become captivated by the fashions of the Ď70s and cut their hair. Still, things continued as they were over that time. Each morning the three of them would come down the hill for the bus, and every afternoon they would return, although now at different times, since I gathered they were now all in different schools, or perhaps involved in different after-school activities. The middle one, the one I always thought of as 'Jenny,' now wore her hair in a single magnificent braid, thick and swinging, which seemed to grow longer and glossier with each passing week.
It was at about this time that Helen and I made friends with the Hansons. Helen has a well-paying job at Cal and one day discovered that a neighbor had just come to work in her department. This turned out to be Maraline Hanson, the mother of my three morning distractions. Within a week we had been invited over to their house for dinner. I was disappointed to discover the younger Hansons were not at home. Heather, the oldest, was at the movies with a boy friend (lucky man!), while the other two were at a slumber party. Well, what do you expect? Who would want to stay home for a couple of old fogies like us? Maraline complimented my wife on her beautiful hair, which she wore down for the occasion, and I have to admit it looked spectacular that night, falling in heavy waves clear to her ass, since she hadnít trimmed it in months. After the first drinks and the usual awkward talk that marks a first social encounter with unknown neighbors, a few things became apparent. Long hair was clearly important in the Hanson household.
Maraline had complimented my wife on her long hair, because she too had once had what was apparently a Hanson hallmark. "You know," she said, "my own mother never cut her hair once in her entire life and I think it got to be over seven feet long. I used to have long hair myself, but no more, sad to say." The story slowly came out, and we learned about the bout of breast cancer and subsequent chemotherapy that had robbed her of an important part of her identity. Within half an hour it became clear that she hoped the Hanson tradition would live on with her daughters. She was clearly very proud of them: they were bright, they were sociable, but (beyond that) all three of them had hair more remarkable than hers had ever been. "Now, you take my middle daughter, Jenny." (Jenny? Could it be? The same name, even! Little Jenny, she of the flying braids on the swing.) "She has that Hanson hair and would never think of cutting it. Why, she almost trips on it as it is, and wants it to get even longer! Can you believe it?"
It was at Christmas time that I first saw the Hanson family all together. We had invited them all over for some holiday cheer, and this time the five of them arrived together. There was Ed Hanson, a taciturn-seeming man in his late 40s, but pleasant enough in his quiet way, and the out-going Maraline, who seemed to want to see the best side of everything. And there were the three daughters. Heather was now a young woman of 17, with her chestnut hair gathered in a graceful pile of soft silk on her head. Then there was Jenny, with her auburn braid falling to her ankles, only 15, but with the poise and composure of one twice her age. Finally, there was young Mandy, 14, still with her hair up in braids, those thick, thick braids I had admired so often from my window. As they were about to leave, Ed casually mentioned that he liked the prints on the walls. Iíd noticed he had been staring at my nature prints off and on all evening and now discovered that we shared a mutual interest in nature photography. My work is amateurish at best, while Ed turned out to have quite a reputation in the field, having led expeditions to the Andes and appearing in National Geographic. Even though Iíve framed only what I consider my best work, the realization made me feel rather embarrassed.
We saw the Hansons many times after that and became good friends. Ed was able to help me improve my hobby and opened the door to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One day we were in his darkroom developing prints... of some mushrooms, I think it was. "Heatherís going away to school soon, you know," Ed said. "It would be nice to have some good pictures of the three of them while theyíre still all together. Why donít you bring your tripod along with you next time youíre here and take some shots? I was never any good with portraiture, but I think youíd be good. That do you think?"
It proved to be one of the best days of my life. The girls were all in high spirits, and all that gorgeous hair! I spent the better part of a day on those pictures. I shot them indoors, I shot them outside. I shot them with their hair up and with it down. I shot them all together and individually. Heatherís chestnut mane, freshly washed and brushed, spread in front of my lens, falling in all its provision to her calves. Jenny coyly undid her gleaming, ankle-length braid to display a cascade of silk that stretched beyond her feet. For the first and only time in my life I saw Mandy with her hair down. We were standing in the garden at the time, I remember. "Letís get one showing off all your hair," I suggested. "OK," she replied, reaching up for the pins. She carefully brushed it out, and let the rich auburn tresses flow to her knees. It proved to be so thick that in the final print, she seems to be peering shyly from the doorway of an auburn tent.
When the last of the girls, Mandy, left for college, her parents moved away. But before they left Berkeley, they presented us with a family album as a keepsake. There are a number of my own shots in there, and several pictures of the children at various stages of their development. Several of these display the remarkable manes that reflect the Hanson tradition. Heather, at the age of 8, holding those now familiar strands of rich chestnut hair for the camera to admire, falling to her waist in a thick, silky torrent. And there is a lovely picture of Maraline before cancer robbed her of her family hallmark. It shows a statuesque woman in her mid-30s standing in a patio engulfed in a torrent of rich, honey-colored hair that falls about her in all its luster.
I received a letter from Jenny only yesterday. She had just married the man of her dreams, and noted with pleasure that it had been her hair that had done the trick. "So glad my friends at school never talked me into cutting it. I was so close to doing it much of the time. I guess family ties do count for something." She went on to talk about her sistersí hair, which is still there, more or less. "Mandy went and cut hers to her waist last year, and I think she now regrets it. At least, she keeps saying she wishes hers was like mine, and mine is really, really long, just the way Jerry likes it. Maybe itíll get as long as Grandmaís once was. Wouldnít that be nice?" Ah, yes, Jenny. I wonder if the Jenny-of-the-swings I know back in fourth grade still has those jet-black pigtails. I somehow doubt it. But I have rather more faith in the Hanson Sisters.
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