I noticed my first gray hair at dawn on the morning of my 30th birthday. Here’s how the whole thing went, like the parody of a horror movie: I heaved myself out of bed, lumbered into the bathroom, switched on the lights and suddenly noticed it there in the mirror, glinting. It was rising from the part in my hair, stiff and shining, barely more than a quarter-inch long—or a quarter-inch high, I’m not sure, since hair is normally measured in length, but this thing was sticking straight up like a tiny flagpole, resolute and unyielding. I pressed down the hairs all around it—what I still thought of as my real hair—and brushed the tip of my finger across its whiskery prickle. Yep, a gray hair all right, a flag of dominion from the suddenly not-so-distant land of Old Age. Which is also, of course, the last little bit of terra firma we stand upon before sailing off on an ocean whose margin fades forever and forever when we move (to borrow a line from Tennyson). I mean, isn’t that the problem with gray hair, after all: the reminder that we’re all secretly dying?
“Pull it out,” my husband mumbled when I climbed back into bed and announced that I was turning 30 and going gray on the same day. But I went back to sleep instead.
In truth, I didn’t care very much. Besides turning 30 and going gray, I was also 7 months pregnant with our first child, which explains all that heaving and lumbering earlier, not to mention that bathroom visit, the third or fourth since midnight. As an emblem of the way life marches inexorably onward, ever toward the grave, a gray hair is nothing to a pregnant belly if you take the cosmic perspective. Biologically speaking, anyway, a child is nothing but a replacement part in the great human machine. Once you’ve passed those genes along and set things up so that they have a decent shot at thriving in the next generation, your work as an animal is done, gray hair or not. Nature won’t even shrug when you go.
Not that I was thinking about death one way or the other that morning as I stared into the bathroom mirror. Or Tennyson, either. I was leaning more toward Melville—“Hast seen the white whale?”—and thinking I’d be happy to get my body back some day, prickly gray hair and all. Also I was thinking that I couldn’t really be getting old, not truly old, because I was about to become a mother. Life was the business I was about.
Nearly 14 years later, it’s still the business I like to think I’m about. Two more babies followed that one, and probably a thousand gray hairs, but I still don’t pull them out. I haven’t dyed them either, and not because of the obvious pun: I just kept making appointments with the colorist and then getting pregnant—there were miscarriages involved, but that’s another story—which meant that for much of a decade I didn’t go near a chemical I could reasonably avoid. And by the time I was finished with pregnancy, I was covered up with babies, and who has time for a double-length appointment at the salon? Or even the time it takes to get a decent trim, really? (A few times I took the scissors disastrously to my own hair, but that too is another essay.) Anyway, before long—and before I’d really noticed the transformation—my hair was shot through with shining.
I won’t say I liked it. There was definitely some uncertainty, particularly in the week before my 25th high-school reunion last summer, about whether I really wanted to look like someone who belongs at a 25th high-school reunion. (Or, as it turns out, a 50th, given that all the other women at my own 25th reunion had obviously gotten touched up at the salon before arriving. Everyone, that is, except for my friend Leslee, now a Buddhist nun named Namkyn, who has no hair at all and obviously won’t be setting any hair-care standards for the class.) Luckily, the “stain” my hairdresser recommended in lieu of a full-blown dye job, just because I was so clearly conflicted about the whole thing, washed out again the week after the reunion. It was almost a relief to look in the mirror and recognize myself again.
Today the silver strands are as long as the rest of my hair, and when I bend to kiss the top of a child’s head, the fall of my own hair across my eyes sometimes startles me with its gleaming. I was a girl with hair the earthbound colors of loam and clay and—oh, I’m being organic here, so why not?—dung and rotting leaves. Now I’m a woman, and my hair is full of celestial light. Like moonlight on water, or stars.
In the end, the real reason I don’t try to hide the gray has nothing to do with pragmatism or philosophy, or even the struggle to maintain some sort of honest identity in a culture that tells everyone youth is an illusion which must be maintained at all costs. It’s true, I confess, that I’m secretly proud of being too busy with human life to give much thought to human entropy. And it’s true, too, that when I worry, I tend to fix on horror-movie fears like accidental dismemberment, or lunacy, or untimely death. So I’m actually very fond of the great cycle of seasons which means—I hope—that I’ll one day go wholly soft and silver with age.
But the real reason I don’t try to hide all this twinkling in my hair is a lot simpler than that. The truth is, I think it’s kind of pretty.