I was blonde and chubby when I was born. My hair was soft and thick, and I had the customary cowlick or two, in unmanageable places. (Every kid should have a few cowlicks, in my opinion). By the time I went to grade school, my hair had turned a chocolate brown color, or perhaps it was more chestnut.
I looked just like my dad growing up, brown hair and brown eyes, just like my brother and two of my sisters. You could line the five of us up, even now, and say ‘yup, those people right there are related.’ My other three sisters, they looked more like my mom, blonde hair, a bit prone to curl, and blue eyes. They might be a bit more difficult to recognize as my siblings.
My mom was a beauty growing up. A teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in the era of poodle skirts and stacked hair, she was the American beauty ideal. “Blonde, with peaches-and-cream skin”, she would say. A Prom photo of her, hanging in grandmother’s study for all those years, showed her with lean face and pink lips, her hair swirled on top of her head like a soft-serve ice cream cone.
And my father, he was uncharacteristically handsome. Old photos of him, from the early 60s, show a lean and strong farm boy, in a suit or a military uniform, classic smile on his face, his dark brown hair, nearly black, combed perfectly.
Five years older than my mom, he swept her off her feet. A nice, handsome, returned missionary Idaho boy from a good family. They dated slowly, carefully, and then he proposed, and she said yes. She’d had many marriage proposals before, but she’d turned them all down, seeing some boys as better for “kissing up a storm” in the back of a car than for starting a family with.
And soon they were in the house on the hill overlooking the river, and the following twenty years brought seven children, varying in their complexions. Blonde, brown, brown, brown, blonde, brown, blonde.
In grade school, in the early 80s, I remember sketching pictures of my five sisters and my mother, little stick figures with round eyes and orange slice smiles, perhaps the only way to distinguish them being the varying styles of their hair. Mom had a yellow perm, rather like Betty White. Michelle kept hers short and feathered back in waves, reminding me of Shirley Partridge. Marie wore long braids and ponytails, much like Jan Brady. Lynn’s hair was shoulder-length and a little shaggy, like Farrah Fawcett. Marnae kept hers short, a tom boy look that she loved, one she could wear hats over. And little Sheri, her long, light blonde hair went all the way down her back, stretching to the lowest vertebra, a cut she would keep until she dramatically chopped it off in her 20s; she even adopted a red mohawk for a time. My only brother, Kenny, had long hair, down to his shoulders, and would sometimes perm it into curls. Dad had his Burt Reynolds mustache. And me, I kept mine short, simple, just enough to keep it out of my eyes.
In sixth grade, when I was 12, everyone sold their jeans and replaced them with the parachute pants popularized by MC Hammer. The brighter and more audacious the colors, the better. Neon pink covered in green watermelons, sharp yellow with black and purple polka-dots, puke green with haphazard silver stars and moons covering them. They were baggy and roomy, and truly horrible. I was awkward then, with my first zits, my voice starting to squeak ever upwards, resulting in Mom calling me a ‘Squawk-Box.’ And to top it off, the customary bowl cut, leaving hair thick around the top in a bowl formation while shaving the hair below it.
As a sophomore, I started caring about my appearance, at least moderately. After years of Hypercolor shirts, or more frequently shirts brandishing images of my favorite cartoon characters, ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Animaniacs, I started wanting shirts with patterns and variable colors. I wanted to catch an eye or two from time to time. My hair remain thick, and had a tendency to curl at the ends when it got long. And when I was 15, a friend showed me how to use a combination curling iron/blow driver device, a long rod with comb-like spikes in it as well as a little curling iron clip attachment that blew warm or hot air out of holes in the rod while you used it. I would get out of the shower with hair still soaked, dry it just a bit, add a tiny bit of mousse, and then begin taking sections of hair in the clip and twisting them backwards as the rod dried the hair. Arranging it all over the part, it would take me ten minutes or so to style the hair in a feathered back wavy look, rather like something Zac Morris might wear in Saved By the Bell, and for the first time in my life I got compliments. It worked for me, and I kept the style all throughout high school.
My hairstyle has stayed pretty consistent throughout my adult life. Through my 20s, there was just enough to comb (though there was that brief few months when I got blonde high lights and grew a goatee). In my early 30s, though, when I lost all my weight, I buzzed my head for the first time, cropping it close to my scalp, and the cut worked wel for me, making me feel slimmer. For the past few years, my temples have been growing grey, climbing a millimeter at a time toward my ears. Every few months or so, someone will notice, as if they’ve never seen it before. “Chad, you’ve got grey hair!” But I like the grey, it gives me a distinguished feeling, and it gives me a bit a clout, taking the attention off my baby face and making me, somehow, more legitimate as a father, a writer, a therapist, and a speaker. People take a different kind of notice.
I’m a dad now and my sons have the fortune or misfortune of looking just like me. They have the same thick hair that started a bit more blonde and ended up more brown. J, my 9 year old, prides himself on how soft his hair is. He washes it it and it falls easily in place without a comb. Lately, he likes shaking his head back and forth and feeling it bounce off his scalp. A constantly has bedhead, his cowlicks more unmanageable than mine ever were, always returning no matter how much water or hair gel plaster them down. His hair is more coarse, and he couldn’t care less how it looks, happy to pair it with a backwards shirt and a pair of pants stained with chili. So long as he can run and play, he gives zero thought to his appearance.
And it doesn’t feel like it will be long before they are the ones that are going grey at the temples, and I’ll be watching from behind.