A LESSON IN TOLERANCE
Young Wendy Bradley is a slave to her hair. That's all I can say. Thereís no other word for it. Never seen anything like it in all my born days. Young people do so go to extremes these days, donít they? I mean, nose rings, and tattoos, and I donít know what all. Now you take Wendy and all that hair of hers. Hardly seems natural.
I was glad when the house next door got sold and new folks moved in. Gets kind of lonesome looking at all those dark windows over there each night now that my Jimís gone. So, when the 'for sale' sign came down and the moving van pulled up, I popped across the drive in hopes of being neighborly. One does want to keep up with things, you know. The new family turned out to be named Bradley. A nice middle-age couple I thought. And real bright, too. Understand heís some kind of a professor. Well, just after I arrived, a teenage girl came out of the house wiping her hands on an apron. She was introduced as their only child, Wendy. Going to our local college next year, I understand. Rather shy. Big blue eyes, I noticed, and a huge mound of blond hair all piled on top of her head. You couldn't miss that. I could hardly believe my eyes. "Such a lot of hair," I remember thinking to myself. "Must be long like my motherís."
Well, it turns out that wasnít the half of it. A couple of days later the Bradleys were finally all settled in. I remember I was looking out the upstairs window that afternoon. The window offers a good view of the Bradleyís backyard, and I could see Wendy coming out from the garage. I will never forget the sight. She had her hair in two pigtails hanging down over her jeans and so long I thought for sure she was going to trip over them. Thick, too. Mercy me! I never knew hair could get that long. What was the child thinking of?
I first thought her hair might be some kind of new teen-age fad. Hair extensions, or whatever you call those things. But, no, all that hair turned out to be real, because the next morning I was standing at the same spot and saw Wendyís mother place a large, green beach towel on their back porch out in the sun. Then Wendy appeared with her hair all loose and spilling in vast torrents all over her shoulders and arms. Just everywhere. She was practically buried in the stuff. It was wet. She had obviously just washed it. I could see water droplets glistening in her hair, and it reminded me somehow of seaweed. She carried it sort of draped over one arm, and spread it out carefully over the beach towel to dry. Her hair was so long that the damp sections spread on the towel seemed almost detached from her body. She must have sat there in that sun for over two hours, getting up from her seat every once and awhile to carefully rearrange various strands of that tremendous mane. It was easy to see it all against the green background. Then her mother came back, and they must have spent another hour sitting there just brushing it over and over again until it was so smooth and shiny it pretty near hurt my eyes. That hair was so long and profuse it seemed unreal, but I had to admit to myself it was rather a pretty sight, catching the sunlight as they took turns brushing it to a polish, then tightly braiding it up, and returning the coil to Wendyís head.
Every morning that summer, weather permitting, Wendy and her mother would carry out the same ritual. My, what a lot of time and fuss all that hair was taking! Hardly seemed worth it. And I wasnít getting on with my daily chores any too well either, what with all the time it was taking to keep an eye on them. I know some people might think Iím an old busy-body, but thatís not it at all. Iím just interested in people.
I have to admit I found all this business about Wendyís hair fascinating. All that time and bother. What was it for? What is this thing about hair, anyway? I remember Mother telling me how proud she felt back in her Gibson Girl days when she could finally sit on hers. I never knew why that was considered such an accomplishment. I belonged to a later generation. We all wanted to be flappers and to look like Clara Bow. Our short hair meant freedom to us. We considered Mother's idea very old-fashioned. But Wendy didn't stop with sitting on hers. No, she could stand on it! What in the world was she playing at?
Well, I guess I never will understand, but I got some inkling the time Mrs. Bradley invited me over for tea. Wendy wasnít there, so I felt comfortable making some comment about her daughter's hair. I think I said I found it "pretty." I refrained from asking why she insisted of making such a spectacle of herself. "Yes," Mrs. Bradley agreed, "Wendyís hair is her pride and joy. Itís very long, you know. We have never been able to get her to cut it, and it just seems to grow and grow. It's a spectacular sight when she lets it down, which she wonít ever do with people around." I avoided letting her know that I had observed it in that state. Some people donít approve of being overseen. They seem to consider it spying.
"I know itís all very impractical and time consuming," my hostess went on, "and hardly my idea, but so many teenagers have such low self esteem these days, donít you agree? Itís so nice when they find something they can identify with. Wendy seems to have found it in her hair. So, who am I to judge?"
I mentioned that my mother had been proud to have hair she could sit on when she was Wendyís age. "But that was seventy years ago," I said. "You donít see many people with long hair these days, and when you do, they turn out to be boys."
"Youíre from another generation, Iím afraid, Maude. I donít think there are any rules anymore. Some people follow the pressure of their peers, and others buck the tide. My husband teaches sociology here at State, so I get to hear a lot about that sort of thing, to say nothing of fashion trends among the student body. The only rule seems to be: ĎThere are no rules.í
"Heaven knows how Wendy got so focused on her hair, but there it is." Mrs. Bradley seemed intent on delivering a lecture (maybe a habit from her husband, the professor), so I let her prattle on. "Why, I remember even as a little girl.... While all her little friends were rushing off to the beauty shop for feathercuts and whatever, Wendy would be sitting in her room, brushing and braiding her hair, coaxing it to get even longer. And that it certainly has. We thought she might finally be satisfied once her tresses reached her ankles, but that only seemed to increase her pride in them.
"My husband and I have spent a great deal of time talking about Wendyís Ďhobby.í He agrees with my views on self esteem and thinks it gives her something to identify with. But he does think she devotes too much time to her hair. She likes to wash it every day so she can keep it as smooth and silky as possible, but it takes hours to dry. Thatís not really a problem, though. She gets lots of books read that way. Still, I am a bit concerned. Wendy is a shy girl and self-conscious. In one way her hair makes her feel special, and it is beautiful hair. Blond and straight, just like her grandmaís, and thatís nice. Yet, in another way it makes her feel different, especially now itís gotten so long it trails on the ground. Girls want to feel special, Maude, but they donít like being different."
"It must be a great trial for you, Mrs. Bradley," I finally managed to get in.
I was beginning to feel rather sorry for Mrs. Bradley, who, I must admit, was being very open with me. But really! All that time and energy being devoted to a spoiled child who refused to cut her hair and had allowed it to control their lives! Have you ever heard such nonsense? Hair that drags on the ground! I wouldnít call that different -- freakish is more like it -- and none too sanitary either, I might add. Just like a liberal college professor and his wife to fancy themselves modern psychologists! Jim and I never had any children, but I know what I would have done if weíd had had a child like that. A brief talk and a pair of scissors is all it would have taken.
Wendy came home just then, so I took my leave. I have to admit sheís a very polite girl and quiet, but I got a closer look at all that hair wrapped in the massive pile on her head. It looked clean and healthy, true, but so much of it, the mound makes her seem top-heavy. Must have been the size of a melon. Hair so long it trails on the ground, her mother had told me. Have you ever heard such nonsense? Doesnít seem right somehow.
I didnít see Wendy much after that, because school started in the fall. All I was told was that she had gone to live in a dormitory on campus at State. She came home for two weeks at Christmas, though, and I noticed she still had all that hair. I could see it heaped on her head, and you canít miss a thing as large as that. Even college hadnít knocked any sense into her! She had something else with her too: a young man. I saw them standing together one evening in one of the Bradleyís upstairs windows. There must be bedrooms up there, I thought. Mercy me! Was he taking her to bed?
They were standing there again the next night when I had gone to my room for something. I hadnít turned on the light, but the lights were full on across the way and the curtains still hadn't been drawn. My bedroom window is directly opposite, so I could see them plainly, although they couldnít see me. They were just standing there talking when I saw Wendy nod her head in agreement. I could see that silly, overgrown mound of hair all piled up there like a loaf of bread. It was shining in the light and seemed almost to be glowing. I had to admit it really was a beautiful shade of blond, all yellows and golds. Then the young man reached up and touched the crown of her head. Wendy nodded again and the man reached for her hair. Why he was going to let it down, and she was allowing him to do it!
For once, I discovered her hair had not been coiled up in its customary braids, because after a few seconds fumbling from his unpracticed hands, it slithered down all of a piece, spilling in vast waves over her shoulders, sliding down the sides of her dress, the lengths becoming lost beneath the edge of the windowsill far out of view. Wendy tossed that long, flowing mane over her shoulders until it was all gathered behind her back and turned away. Her young beau stood there for a moment looking in awe at the entire length of her hair hanging there in all its profusion. He then reached to the table for a hairbrush and began to move it slowly through the column in long, caring strokes like a caress. He brushed it like that for a long time, slow and thoughful, with her hair flowing and swaying like liquid gold beneath his gentle touch. Wendy turned, and the couple fell into an embrace. She pulled all her hair forward around them until the pair of them became buried together within its protective folds.
I stood there in the dark and watched them. A look of such sheer contentment and ecstasy came into their eyes that I almost wished I had let my hair grow like that, so Jim and I might have played Pelleas and Melisande at the window, if only just for one magic moment. I might be a different person today if we had.
I suddenly began to feel very much alone. Lonely. Funny, isnít it? Me, who must know half the people in this town, feeling lonely? I felt jealousy spreading over me and suddenly realized I was nothing but a jealous, spiteful old widow. I realized I had never experienced the special thrill of young love of the kind I saw being expressed just a few yards in front of me.
For the first time it occurred to me that there was nothing silly at all about Wendyís hair. It was a lovely creation of silk and light. A gift from nature. Maybe my mother had won my father with hair "she could sit on." I had to admit Wendy was a nice young thing, polite and shy, if maybe still a bit confused. It was perhaps for just such a moment as this that Wendy had devoted so much time to her hair and had allowed her tresses to grow so long. Wendyís hair seemed to mock me, shimmering in free abandon as it flowed around her through the Bradleyís window. I thought back to the usual everyday bun in which she concealed her hair, the mound I had ridiculed so often as being too large for her head. That bun normally confined the blond hair I was looking at now, the hair that Wendy loved and had nurtured since she was born. It was not oversized. It was a crown. Thatís what my mother had always called a womanís hair: her crowning glory. And so it was. I placed my knurled hands hands on my thin, sorry hair and wept.
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