“I watched as my grandmother let down her pinned-up hair to brush it out… I brushed my grandmother’s hair, which extended long past her waist.”
It comes on the invitation of this image Joy Harjo drops into her recent work, Poet Warrior, one among the many that drift in mind as I pick up these pages bound together by living again and again.
It is the summer that we cannot spend as always we have done, leaving the city behind, at our family home on the Oregon Coast. An earthquake in Alaska has unleashed waves far away, rattling the land where our house sits on a cliff overlooking Miss Pacific. It is 1964; I am 13.
When all settles, there is a crack in the foundation of the “new addition,” and this extension to the original house has fallen away. It will take most of the summer to reunite the pieces of our home. So my mother packs four of the six of us that still spend summers in blissful idleness without summer jobs into the station wagon and takes us inland to join our cousins.
This is new for us, family together in summer. My grandmother has her own cabin, and if I’m honest, I don’t know her nearly as well as my cousins do. This is their yearly retreat together; they head to the mountains and the Metolius River away from the coast. My aunt and uncle rent one cabin, my grandmother another. Their days smell of pine and pitch and a raft floating on the calm surface of a dammed creek.
I love this heat, this opportunity to ride horses and swim, my cousins at the ready for whatever adventure, everyone coming together for dinner at the lodge. After one dinner when my grandmother has begged off, my mom asks me to go check on her, take her some food perhaps, even though each cabin has a small kitchen.
Her cabin is tucked away beneath the shade of towering pines. Juniper surrounds the back and fills the air as the day’s warmth departs. I do not want to disturb her—our relationship is a tentative one—and what if she is resting?
I gently push the door open, the room shadowed except, as I lift my eyes to the one pool of light, I see her, seated before a dressing table, her back to me. While she might be aware of me, I am held captive by her hair, a wavy silver cascade down her back, thinner near the end where strands meet her waist. I have never seen her like this, undone.
My grandmother is a formal person, a woman mysterious to me when fully clothed and readied for the day. She carries the time before my time with reserve, with dignity. But in the moment she catches my eye in the mirror, she says, “Come here, Patricia. Would you help me brush my hair?”
I tiptoe across the wood floor, reaching for the brush she hands me, the plate abandoned on a side table. And I begin. I have never seen her this way. We have never shared any moment like this. I am careful—this ritual bears no resemblance to my mother wrangling with my tangles to tame them into a braid.
My memory stops there, the strokes, the dim room, the softly closed eyes of my grandmother, her neck tipped back to me, as I guide the brush through all that silver.
(Thanks to Poet Laureate Joy Harjo for sharing ways of being in this world.)