Ruby Fusion

Ruby Fusion was first published in (em): a Review of Text and Image, Issue 3: April 2015

Jennifer, my twenty-something daughter, urges me to color my hair. She’s come of age at a time when young women change hues as often as they change purses. They streak, tint, and bleach to suit their mood. From the toddler’s pale buttery strands, I watched her hair darken to a warm nut brown until, starting in her teens, she began to reverse nature. Her mocha-colored locks yielded to blond highlights until the last brown loyalists were banished.

“You’d look younger,” she tells me.

I bristle: “I don’t need to hide my age.”

When the first gray hairs infiltrated my dark waves like a vanguard of scouts, I acknowledged them with a sharp intake of breath … then resigned indifference. I resolved to reject the artificial and superficial—dyes, bleaches, paints and powders. I would embrace middle age, wear my maturity with pride. But as the invasive strays of gray multiplied, they looked like dull cement, not sparkling silver filaments. Now a battle for my soul ensues, pitting my physical self-image against the desire to assert my principles and uphold the dignity of all womankind.

My mother used to tell me she’d always wanted to be a redhead. I remember her thick coal black hair and her dancing dark eyes. I didn’t think of her as pretty or not pretty; she was my mother. But when I look back at early photographs I realize how stunning she was in her youth. By the time she was in her forties she seemed beaten down. Chronic illness and growing unhappiness combined to take their toll. Doctors labeled her complaints psychosomatic and not being taken seriously added to her sense of defeat. She sought to restore the lost luster in her own and others’ eyes with outer trappings, and I became her wardrobe consultant. She looked to me for affirmation as her wardrobe grew and her shoe collection started to rival Imelda’s. “Can I wear this yellow, or does it wash out my skin?” “Are these heels too high (too low, too clunky) with this skirt?” But even with Vogue-model leanness and aristocratic cheekbones, she never pulled off the chic, self-assured personal she wanted to convey.

What if she’d been a redhead? Would she have felt better about herself, more vibrant? But we didn’t have the kind of open rapport that Jennifer and I have, and it wasn’t in my consciousness to worry about my mother’s aging appearance and withering psyche. I wish now that I’d encouraged her, said “So do it! I’ll help.”

As a teen, I wore the French twists and ratted helmet-like ‘dos of the day. A friend in cosmetology school even added dazzling pewter-bronze streaks. But that was before I adopted the women’s movement with a fervor and abandoned the “tarty” hair and makeup. Now, years later, my zealousness relaxed, I tiptoe in to test the waters—wary and self-conscious, harboring a tinge of guilt. Is this what teenage boys feel like when they’re buying their first condoms? I scan drugstore shelves, reading labels, comparing one dark brown to another; I want to match my natural color, not call attention to my fraud. So subtle that no one will know, like the old Clairol ads: “Does she or doesn’t she?”

Too subtle, as it turns out—even Jennifer doesn’t notice until I call her attention to it. The gray is gone, but it feels anticlimactic. Maybe this time of life calls for a more dramatic statement. I recall a character in an Amy Bloom novel who tints her graying hair in preparation to meet an old lover. She calls the resulting hue “sprightly mendacious auburn.” Why not flaunt my deception, celebrate the new me?

My next attempts result in splatters on the shower walls and tub floor that evoke the bloodbath scene in “Psycho.” From skin test and prep to application, waiting period, rinsing and conditioning and cleanup, it’s messy and laborious, leaving rusty smudges on towels and pillowcases, staining collars. Soon it settles into an efficient routine. I become bolder, experimenting with color as I seek the perfect auburn, something with pizzazz but not too crimson or scarlet, no beet-purple or carroty orange. “Ruby Fusion” has the lush and zingy look I’m after, and the name seduces me. I envision a whole new persona around it: a bolder me, resonating confidence and sophistication.

“Mom, look at me!” I want to shout. The child jumping off the diving board lives on in all of us. I know my mother would have applauded my daring. I conjure a wistful, fictional scenario: coloring our hair together, going shopping and sipping sparkling Prosecco at lunch.

I turn to Jennifer, who offers the validation I seek. “Now you’ve got it,” she says. She brags about me to her friends, and, just like that, I’m a “very cool” mom, one of the girls at happy hours and Oscar parties.

My mother died of cancer at sixty. I often wonder what she would have been like at seventy and eighty. I wonder if tinting her hair to an audacious auburn would have given her the camouflage of courage with which to face life’s ills. That may sound superficial, but our self-image hovers on the surface and bores through to the core of our being. Some studies show that confidence and a positive outlook can fight disease and increase longevity. In the last photograph I have of my mother, taken just weeks before her death, she’s wearing a long silk dressing gown, swirls of mauve and black on white. She still has an eye for fashion, still cares about her appearance. Her short marbled hair frames her lined and pinched face. In spite of her long and debilitating infirmity, her hair remains thick and healthy, more pepper than salt until the end. Died but not dyed.

So does being a redhead live up to my expectations? Do I feel more self-assured, dynamic? You bet! I’m infused with new vitality. The qualms I had about chemicals in the dyes—will they seep into my scalp and cause cancer or dementia?—dissipate. My political and ethical misgivings prove unfounded as well: I haven’t betrayed my gender or sacrificed my integrity. I know women who call themselves “lipstick feminists” because they wear makeup, contrary to stereotypes; I’m a L’Oreal feminist.

Sipping a glass of Viognier with friends on a bayside hotel deck one summer evening, I can’t take my eyes off a woman at the next table. Seventyish, I’d guess, with garish red hair. Her face is blanketed in makeup, a chalky mask with painted-on eyebrows and bright magenta lipstick smeared outside her natural lipline. Pathetic, I think, like a clown in a fright wig. I vacillate, though, in empathy: why the hell not? I’m both fascinated and terrified—she’s trying too hard, but I understand and share what must be her fearful motivation.

Aging with grace and dignity means knowing when to yield the reins to nature. I consider scaling back from “Ruby Fusion” to the more restrained “Brilliant Bordeaux” or the understated “Tawny Port.” I look for confirmation in the mirror—no, not yet. I’m still “Ruby Fusion,” comfortable in my own skin. Carrying it off, if I do say so myself, with panache. Like Chaucer’s Cressida, “I am mine own woman, well at ease.” I’ll know when it’s time. Or Jennifer will tell me.