When I was young I would spend weeks at a time with my grandma in Wisconsin. She was a beautician (as it was called back then) and owned her own salon. The salon was in the same building that housed a gas station, but from inside it looked like any other small town salon in the 80’s. I was very young, under the age of ten, but a well behaved child and proud to spend time with my grandmother all day at the salon. She would keep my occupied by sorting perm rods or by letting me sit at the tall front desk where I would pretend to be the receptionist. After a particularly stressful day for my grandmother I remember her pulling me aside, looking me in the eyes, and telling me to never become a hairstylist. I heeded her words as if they would keep me from making the biggest career mistake of my life, forgetting for 20 years to ever question what this ultimate secret was that made doing hair the worst job ever.
Around the time that my grandmother’s second husband, a terribly unattractive person, large and with hair that looked severely fake, was gambling his life’s savings away, I was wondering whatever happened to that close relationship my grandmother and I had had. And I was also contemplating going to cosmetology school. When her husband died of cancer my grandmothers alcoholism worsened and dementia, diluted with a cheap jug of wine, came sweeping in. She was half in the bag when I announced I would be attending cosmotology school, and I was surprised when she didn’t tell me I was making a big mistake. Because I have very few memories of my childhood I had assumed that the one about her telling me to never be a hairstylist was important. But while considering the career choice I argued the voice in my head, saying it had recently occurred to me that I had put too much stock into the words of someone who routinely made poor choices with men and alcohol. Looking back, this argument probably came from a place of anger and confusion as I was watching my grandmother waste her life away. And plus, how could I trust one childhood memory to dictate my future financial stability?
By the time I had finished cosmotology school my grandma’s dementia was ever more noticeable. She was happy for me and said that it only made sense that I would follow in her footsteps. A short time later, at my first salon job, I received a phone call from the receptionist at my grandmother’s eye doctor’s office. It was not an approved phone call but she felt I should know that my grandma had not only driven herself to the office but had also ordered an abnormal amount of contacts. I hung up, wondering how I would balance work and taking care of my grandmother.
Around the time I started to realize my hair coloring skills were not improving my mother was realizing the state of my grandmother’s mental health. We were taking turns checking in on here, cleaning up after her drinking binges, and planning to take her keys away. My mother eventually stepped in as her full time caregiver, and I went back to wondering if I had taken the wrong career path. With each new hair coloring disaster the anxiety grew. Every time a client stopped returning my heart sank. While sitting with my grandmother at the assisted living facility I would confide in her that I didn’t feel like I had the nerves for doing hair. Despite her infrequent memory she somehow remembered exactly what I was talking about and it was that feeling of not being alone that kept me pushing forward.
Now my grandmother is in a nursing home. On her good days she remembers that I am a hairstylist. She no longer tells my husband, like a broken record, about how I would go with her to the salon as a child. She doesn’t seem to remember that I would sit at the desk with my crayons or that we shared that very fleeting bond over the anxiety of doing hair. Three years into doing hair and I am still unintentionally turning women’s bangs blue, not getting all of the dye properly washed from the hair, and routinely crying in my car at the end of the day and wondering how I got myself into this. And it turns out my grandmother was right. But maybe not for the secret reasons I assumed she knew. Maybe the reason all along was the anxiety that we both suffered from and the tole it would take on us at work.