The Great Blonde One atop the chilly mountain…
It sounded really impressive and formidable. Like some sort of arch villain who capriciously wreaked havoc and order upon us all. Only she was no such divine force. She was my grandmother and so far as I could see, she was just trying to get on with her life.
I was turning 20 and having a hard time with it. Turning 20 shouldn’t have been such a big deal, and yet it was. The promise of young adulthood had been a huge disappointment. There I sat, on my Aunt’s couch in Compton. Her house was small and warm and I sat on a well-worn sofa with the cordless phone tucked onto my chin. On the other end was my grandmother, struggling with the death of her husband. He’d been dead for years – I confess, I did not know just how many and she said she felt silly being still so emotional after so many years but it was still raw and horrible. She sounded so sad. The year was 1997 – it must have been, yes it was. There we were, struggling with the passage of time or the lack of it. I was overdue for a visit anyway.
‘The Great Blonde One’. That was my mother’s phrase, not mine and I supposed it held the great conundrum that generations of our family had and would continue struggle with. For Grandma’s part, the answer lay simply in boxes and boxes of Clairol that meant she would take the number of old age grey hairs with her to her grave. But the conundrum or the boxes of Clairol held within them both improbabilities that were irreconcilable with time and with America: one could not be old and blonde; one could not be Black and blonde.
I was 20 and furious that there was nothing for it but to abandon my aspirations of becoming an engineer. The whole thing needed funding and a waitress’s salary wouldn’t do it in a 100 years of Saturdays. But I was pretty and spoke well and well, a lot of people would, I mean a lot of people would support me meeting, dating, and perhaps marrying an engineer so $6.00 on a bottle of Clairol was so much more attainable than, you know, a Bachelor of Science. The results were hideous. My hair was a Sesame Street Muppet Orange and my hairline had been completely intolerant of the peroxide ingredient of the hair dye and had in fact burnt the hair off to wiry strays, which defied straightening and now had no natural curl pattern. It was worse than a teenage eyebrow massacre and now I was as conspicuous as I was self-conscious. One could not be blonde and Black.
It was either the year 1997 or 1998 that I went to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving. I know I went for 1998, maybe it was both years. I remember there being the first time having dinner up there in Crestline with Grandma and my Uncle Jamie and all of us not really knowing how to do such a small ceremony and the relief of coffee brewed in the coffee pot the next morning. It all gets muddled up, because I remember there was this awkward Thanksgiving in Pomona around the same time. It all happened around the same time because I ran away from home in July of 1996 and boarded a plane for the UK in January of 1999.
Whether it was 1997 or 1998, Grandma had gone to incredible trouble to produce what felt like a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe the year was 1996, although that is so hard to believe. So much had happened that year and yet plausible….Jesus. Did she make a turkey? It wouldn’t have mattered because I don’t eat turkey anyway. I was just really grateful for some place warm and quiet and no one expecting me to eat anything weird. And honestly, that pot of Folgers coffee in the morning wafted into my bed sheets like mother love.
I can’t work out those years, you know. It was the space of not even three years and they carried the weight of 10. My hair changed from black to orange, to red, to brown and then black again. It wasn’t anyone’s fault; it was just the fashion of the time I guess. I don’t normally hold down to the popular fashion but with my long-held career aspirations in tatters, I had to seriously consider:
“Maybe that’s just not God’s plan for you.”
Now, I know that pretty much everyone would agree that an even swap of Calculus for Clairol is a false equivalency but I knew that pointing it out would have made me an asshole.