When To Go Grey – Leslie Kleinberg Zacks

Let’s be honest. It’s not about the hair.

Last week, my caring but business-like housekeeper asked me if I was letting my hair go grey.

“No…That wasn’t my plan…” I responded, confused and quickly checking my reflection in the dirty glass of the microwave door. English is not her first language and, having chipped away at confusing housekeeping-related topics with her in the past, I assumed the true nature of her question would reveal itself if I played along.

“Usually there is more mess,” she explained. That could have meant a lot of things, I thought, still not getting it. “In your bathroom,” she clarified, pointing over her shoulder like it was obvious. I realized she was referring to the disaster I leave behind every three weeks or so after my at-home root touch-ups. I usually put off doing them until moments before appearing in public with the inch-long evidence of my decrepitude on full display. Then I end up rushing, frantic, and pretty much Jackson Pollock-ize my whole head and half the bathroom. Missing that particular week were the telltale purplish-black fingerprints on the vanity doors and sink, and splatters of dye all over the inside of the shower curtain, like a crime scene involving an excited fountain pen.

“Oh,” I said, patting my hair self-consciously. “I have an appointment at the salon this week,” I said, feeling oddly obligated to explain myself to someone I wasn’t paying to keep track of these things. When I told my husband later that night that it might be time for a new housekeeper, he said “No. Maybe it’s just time to let yourself go grey.”

“I vehemently disagree,” my mother, aged 79, responded without even a moments consideration when I posed the question to her. “You don’t go grey until I go grey,” she proclaimed with the same authority she used when commenting on issues related to my appearance pretty much my entire life. Conversation-ending authority.

“Nooooooo…..dooooooon’t” was the collective reaction from my FB community when I crowd-sourced the question, like a total fucking fool. The comments were a blizzard of both cautionary tales and supportive platitudes, mostly discouraging me from doing it, almost all from women my age. The one lone exception was the “I don’t understand this question…” response from my high school poetry teacher from 30 years ago. He’d never commented on a single thing I’d ever posted but for some reason he decided to pipe up on this pressing issue, tacitly reminding me that I’m ridiculous. It was all interesting data, but I did not feel resolute. The reality was that giving up this tedious and futile ritual was starting to sound tempting, like abruptly quitting a job you don’t really love. Or deciding to stop raking leaves once it snows for the first time. Just don’t one day. Be Done.

I finally turned to Jennifer, my hair stylist of 15 years whom I love and secretly pretend is my therapist. I don’t know if she likes me that much, but she doesn’t seem to mind when I leave my daughter sitting in her chair longer than her actual haircut while I wander down the street to Starbucks. When I posed the question to her, she ran her fingers through a few long strands and carefully examined the top of my head before she simply said “Not yet.” She knew I was seeking radical truth, and she let me have it with the credibility and bedside manner of a surgeon delivering life changing, but not threatening news: “I tell people it’s time when their at-home touch-ups are leaving 3/4 of their hair grey because it is coming out their head in places they can’t see. You have some time.”

She made it clear that one day, the answer would change. She warned me that it would make me look older and that she thought I needed a little more time to accept that. This reminded me of a friend from high school whose hair was almost completely grey the day we graduated. It was gorgeous and she never once colored it. Her effortless, unique style conveniently grew straight out of her head, unlike every single look I’ve unsuccessfully experimented with my entire life. Hers is the effect I aspire to when I fantasize about breaking free from the bond of my follicle prison and letting the grey grow wild. But I won’t look like her. I’ll look like George Clooney. Which looks great if you’re George Clooney, but I’m not ready to look like beautiful 60-year old man.

My house cleaner’s question was innocent enough and she couldn’t have cared less about the answer, but what I heard that day was permission to make a choice. I like to believe she was saying “You look great!” but also “How about stop giving a fuck!” It was a casual question to which she probably expected the briefest of answers, but after careful consideration I decided my answer to her unintended subtext is “Thank you!” and “In so many ways I already have!” For now, I’ll keep wearing hats when I’ve forgotten to buy a coloring kit or avoid appearing in public places under direct sunlight, like we all do. Someday, I may sense the slightest hesitation in the collective response to the question of grey, if I actually bother to ask. Or, better yet, perhaps sooner than that, I’ll truly and completely just stop. Quit. Be done and collect zero data in the process. When that day happens, I’ll slowly, methodically, strand by strand and in imperceptible increments, let go and transform. Some day. Just — not yet.

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