In the Eyes of the Beholders

In the Eyes of the Beholders

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

In the Eyes of the Beholders

The older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Mary Schmich

The staff at Assisted Living has Mom ready, just as I asked. I take Mom’s hand and say, “Come on. This is going to be fun.”

My smile says we are going to fly kites or eat banana splits. She follows me, a slight drag to her step. I open the car door and remind her to sit. I have to press on her shoulder so she remembers what to do. I drive carefully, watching to make sure she is not fiddling with the locks. Time before last, she got the door open while we were driving. Dad fell apart when he heard about it. “Do you think she’s trying to commit suicide?” he wanted to know.

“An adventure,” I say, swinging Mom’s hand as we walk into the beauty salon.

The woman directs me to three pink, vinyl-covered chairs and a glass-top table that holds a worn copy of People and a large thick hardback called Style. I guide Mom to a chair and open the big book. Each page gleams with a large picture of a pixie, vixen or sexy woman from the neck up. One has moussed hair that looks like the prow of a ship. Another has curls as still as marble and another’s hair waves like it’s in a wind tunnel. I hold the book close to Mom and point at each picture. She likes pictures. The largeness amuses her.

We have looked through all the picture books, and I can feel Mom getting restless. At the nursing home, Mom has refused to bathe, refused to let them wash her hair or trim her fingernails. “She gets combative,” the nurse told me. “We’ve got to let her get past this.” My father went to intervene—he would bathe her himself. But Mom fought him as well. Meanwhile, her hair has grown long and greasy, her nails are gnarly and yellowed. She looks like the crone in the old fairy tales, the kind of witch who will take your bread and water and give you a valuable secret that might save your life. As much as I enjoy fairy tales, I want Mom to look like her old self, not some disguised heroine.

“Frances?” a stocky woman wearing a green smock over black pants stands before us. “I’m Kim. Pleased to meet you.”

I take Mom’s hand and lead her to a chair in the center of a long row. I hold her hands while Kim puts a smock over her.

“So how do you want it cut?” Kim asks.

Mom is swiveling in the chair.

“She usually wears it short,” I say. “We need to be quick, because I don’t know how long she will last.”

Kim nods and gets out her scissors.

I kneel and hold Mom’s hands. Mom smiles. Locks of Mom’s silvery hair float down on my knees, at my feet. Mom has always been her own barber, until last year when scissors no longer made any sense.

This is only Mom’s second time in a beauty parlor. The first time was when her niece got married, and all the women went together to get a hairdo. My mother got her first dose of rollers, hair dryers and hair spray. She was introduced to the idea of protecting hair, like it was an endangered species, wrapping toilet paper around the set so it wouldn’t deflate during careless sleep, sleeping in a chair, so her head wouldn’t loll unnecessarily.

I sit on the floor, hold Mom’s hands and talk to Kim about the pictures of her grandchildren, four of them. The hairs blanket my legs and the floor. I have never knelt before my mother and it seems like I should be saying, “Thank you for birthing me, for raising me, for being such an interesting and constant person in my life.” It seems I should be thanking her for my very being, instead of saying to Kim, “Let’s try to wash her hair while we’re here.”

We lead her to the sink. Mom giggles when Kim sprays warm water on her head, then lathers. Kim is quick and when Mom emerges, she looks like the woman I know, clean, with glorious naturally curly hair.

“Is there a manicurist available?” I ask. “One who could do Mom’s nails very quickly?”

Isabelle is available. She speaks with a soft Spanish accent. I sit right beside Mom as Isabelle puts Mom’s hands in soaking water, then shows her colors of nail polish. Mom picks up a bright red bottle, one that a younger Mom would have warned me against, as being too bold. But when you’re in your eighties, you can be bold. Mom doesn’t want to let go of the bottle, so Isabelle works on Mom’s other hand, using a similar color. Mom watches for a while. When it’s time, she unfurls her fingers and Isabelle quickly transforms the other hand.

In her real life, my mother never had her fingernails polished. She thought it was vain and unnecessarily flirtatious. Perhaps she would still think that now. But that simple sparkle of color and elegance adds to Mom’s presence, gives her an extra vibrancy.

“I add some lipstick and blush. For free. Your mother, she is a beautiful woman,” Isabelle says.

When my aunt got feeble, her one despair was that she couldn’t make it to her hairdresser. This hairdresser lived across town.

“Why don’t you go to the salon in your neighborhood?”

I had asked Aunt Ann. “It’s so much easier and closer.”

“It’s not the same. I’m used to my hairdresser.”

Every week, I drove her to the hairdresser. Though I saw how happy she was, emerging with her hair freshly set, tinted, her nails glowing pink and her lipstick freshened, I still did not understand how being coifed and groomed could make such a difference.

Until now. Now that Mom looks like she used to, I feel a sense of ease and hope. The dread of seeing Mom with dirty old-woman hair melts away. Back at my house, we sit on the sofa and I hand her a cookie that I had stashed in my pocket, ready to bribe her into stillness if needed. She holds it like it is jewelry she doesn’t own. “It’s to eat,” I tell her, moving her hand towards her mouth.

“Where is . . . ?” Mom can’t find the next word, but I know she is asking about my dad.

“He’ll be here in about an hour,” I tell her.

We eat cookies and look at pictures in magazines. It feels like after school with a beloved child.

When my father arrives, his eyes fill with tears when he sees Mom’s hair. “What happened?” he asks. “Did you get her to take a bath?” His voice is low and awestruck.

“We went to the beauty parlor,” I told him.

We look at her, as if she is a brand-new person, pretty and full of possibility.

Her hair changed. Her fingernails got polished and cut. She looks pretty again. Maybe that means she will be able to button her clothes again, remember my daughters’ names again and recognize a Hershey bar. Maybe something else will change. For these few moments, we believe anything is possible.

Deborah Shouse

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