The first two decades of my life a woman named Stacy cut and styled my hair. We’d first met her in the Sears studio near our house and I was enamored—her wide blue eyes, puff of blonde hair styled high, blue eyeshadow and bright pink lipstick resembled a barbie doll.
“Hello sweetheart, let’s make you look fancy, yes?”
Mom had picked up on her Macedonian accent right away. My paternal grandfather had immigrated from Macedonia at the age of three, circa 1920, where they had lived in a small village “down the hill from Bouf” (we’re still not sure what this means). While the story is hazy, the facts are something like this: The Greeks had burned their village down and droves of Macedonians were fleeing to the US to escape civil and political unrest. My grandfather and his mother made their way to Ohio (we do not know to this day how they got there or what the journey looked like, my great-grandmother having passed away early on, my grandfather too young to remember), where she was set up with another Macedonian man she would soon marry. Her first husband had died and she was struggling to support her three boys. The man could adopt the older two, he said, but he couldn’t take the toddler. My grandfather was placed with a childless Macedonian couple and they moved up to Detroit; he grew up thinking they were his parents and that he had “uncles” living in Milwaukee. It was only when he dug up his birth certificate in order to marry my grandmother, at the age of twenty, that he discovered he was adopted, and that his uncles were really his brothers. And while his given name had been Kierl Georgioeff, he was named, upon entry via Ellis Island, Carl Brown.
While my grandfather had a motley crew of Macedonians he played cards with, it was rare to meet other people from the “old country” out in the wild. My mother latched onto Stacy immediately—bringing her bak lava from the bakery down the street (which was, ironically, also run by a Macedonian family), showing her pictures of my grandfather and his family—she even baked zelnick, a traditional Balkan pastry composed of thin layers of phyllo pastry filled with various combinations of sirene, eggs, sorrel, browned meat, leeks and rice and in winter, brined cabbage (from which the dish derives its name).
Stacy welcomed her gestures with warmth and humbleness and treated our family with a southern hospitality and charm. After a few years patriating the Sears salon, however, my mother’s allergies flared up and she could no longer be inside the studio with all of the hairspray, perfume, bleach and other contaminants saturating the air (this was the late eighties when sky high bangs, big hair and perms were all the rage, and “natural” products were nearly nonexistent). Luckily, we learned Stacy also styled hair within her home in Dearborn, and from then on we made the short drive out there.
The basement had a small waiting area of which usually sat a gaggle of elderly ladies waiting for perms. They smiled whenever we came in, and during my teen years, swooned over my perfectly plucked and arched natural eyebrows. (I’d essentially plucked the Macedonian bushiness out of them, as “thin was in” in the late nineties.) They loved my mother, too—everyone did—and would talk for hours if my sister and I didn’t actively shuffle them along.
We would have gone there forever, I think, but Stacy’s house had a drawback in that you had to use stairs to get down to the salon. Sometime around the year 2000, when I was seventeen, my sister fifteen, Mom could no longer make it down there. I could drive myself by then, and did so for haircuts, highlights, homecomings, junior prom and prom. My sister and I carried Mom down once, carefully balancing her weight between us in a final attempt to make this all work, but the trip back up proved risky on the steep narrow staircase that had a wide opening on the right-hand side. Mom would still stop by to see Stacy once in a while—they’d sit on the porch and chat—and she was never shy about picking up the phone to say hello. But from that point on my mother’s hair was cut at home by family and friends, and while she always kept her spirits up and engaged in lively conversation with her stand-in stylists, there hung in the air a collective mourning for those days in the basement of our Macedonian hair dresser and the cast of characters we met there.
I wonder now how much of our grieving process centers around not only inanimate objects like hair brushes and clothing, but the regular rituals through which we live. Hair appointments, the dentist, the family physician, the foot doctor—we start off being chauffeured around by our parents, until we are old enough to drive ourselves. And at some point—for many—the roles reverse later in life and we find ourselves driving them.
I think I focus on these regular, easy encounters because they represent normalcy. The gift of hindsight has shown me that getting your hair done with your Mom, in retrospect, is one of the easiest things you can do in this life. By focusing on the routine, predictable outings we shared I am effectively blocking out the ones I don’t want to remember: the neurologists, the MIND clinic, the loud, clacking MRI tunnel into which my mother was inserted like an experimental rat. Focusing on those visits with Stacy shields me from the unwanted memories of the home visits from Go Docs Go, the caregivers and nurse’s aides and practitioners traipsing in and out of my mother’s home (and the last four years of her life, my sister’s), for nearly a decade. Because even though we grew to love many of the caregivers, they were there because Mom couldn’t do things on her own, and she was only fifty when it started, and what kind of life is that?
The MS robbed my mother, my sister and I of quality time together—outings we could have shared, concerts we could have gone to, a hair stylist we considered a friend. But I’m trying not to focus on the “what ifs” and the “could have beens”. I’m trying to focus instead on the memories I am fortunate enough to have and the gratitude I feel in my heart for that shiny Macedonian hairdresser with the magenta lipstick and the bleached eighties bangs who brought friendship, laughter and a piece of our heritage home to us.