From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

You Go, Salt-and-Pepper!

No one can figure out your worth but you.

Pearl Bailey

The bible says gray hair is a crown of glory, and I’ve been sporting that glory since my early twenties.

In fact, my prematurely gray hair, inherited from my father, has always commanded attention and served as a conversation piece that reinforced my youthful appearance. “You look too young to have so much gray hair!” “How did you get your hair that way? Did you dye it?” “I love your hair! I hope my gray grows in like that.” “You’re wearing that gray hair, girl!”

I received many comments from men who liked it, too, including my husband. He is one of the reasons I never felt compelled to dye my hair. I would respond with a delighted “Thank you!” to these compliments, armed, of course, with the knowledge that the gray hair didn’t match my age.

My eighty-something aunt, who gets a rinse every time she goes to the beauty shop, would sometimes complain that my gray hair was making her look old! Nevertheless, I took a certain pride in my salt-and-pepper—until, that is, my age began to catch up with it.

The compliments changed, too. Instead of reminding me of my youth, people began to say things to remind me of my age. “I hope my wife ages the way you do.” “I wish I had the courage to let my gray hair grow in.” Once, when walking with my two young children, I even got the dreaded, “Are these your grandchildren?” The comments I once delighted in were no longer so welcome.

As I approached fifty, I considered dying my hair for the first time. If I was going to get rid of my beloved salt-and-pepper, I was going to make it an event. Since a big bash was being planned for my fiftieth birthday, I decided to do it before then. I was excited, but still a little shaky.

I must have changed my mind a hundred times as I fantasized what it would be like. How would I look? What if I didn’t like it? Or what if I loved it and wanted to bolt to the shop every time the gray roots peeked through? Did I really want to spend that much energy on my hair?

Finally, I imagined my grand entrance to the party. A hush would fall over the crowd as I, elegantly dressed, appeared in the doorway. There would be spontaneous applause, oohs, ahhs and admiring comments. But this time, the comments would not be about my gray hair, but about the lack of it! “Girl, you should have washed that gray out of your hair a long time ago! You look wonderful! And you look so much younger!”

After a few weeks, I arrived at a final decision: I would take the plunge.

When the day of my hair appointment arrived, butterflies swirled in my stomach, and I reminded myself that this would all be worth it. I concentrated on quieting my pounding heart as I explained to the young operator what I wanted.

“Take away all the gray!” I said grandly.

“Why do you want to do that?” she asked.

I was speechless for a moment, and I looked up at her.

“I think your gray hair is beautiful.” She looked around the large shop and began to ask the other operators and their customers. “What do you all think?”

One by one they agreed and murmured or shouted their disapproval of a dye job. “No! You’ll ruin it!” “There’s no way I’d dye my hair if it looked like yours.” “Don’t do it!” they all said with one voice. The young operator looked at me and said, “See?”

Confused, I pondered this unexpected turn of events. Was it possible that these ladies had some regrets for not making that choice themselves, or were they just being polite, not wanting to hurt my feelings?

Yes, I had always thought my gray hair was beautiful, but how would I feel when the next person on the street said something I didn’t think was so flattering? Was I confident enough to walk out of the shop the same way I’d walked in?

On the other hand, I was entitled to make a change if I wanted to. Women change their hair color all the time. It’s no big deal! Clarity finally came at the end of this internal dialogue. I realized that it was my decision and mine alone. I could feel myself sitting taller in the chair as I finally told the operator what I wanted her to do.

After she finished with my hair, she spun me around to face the mirror. I realized then that I had made the right choice. I liked . . . no, I loved what I saw. I paid the operator and got up from the chair. I thought about my grand entrance later that evening and smiled. I would knock their socks off!

In a nearby mirror, another customer studied her hair and lightly fingered her gray roots. As I headed for the door, she turned to look at me and said, “You go, Salt-and-Pepper!”

Carol Ross-Burnett

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