Where is revenge best served, when it involves your mother, and she has dementia?
At the hair salon.
For years, my mother visited the beauty salon in Amherst to “get her hair done.” Occasionally, she even toted five kids when tired of giving the home perm or snip of the bangs.
Mom, like every woman, had always been concerned about her hair. She hadn’t inherited the long, flowing black locks of many Italian beauties. Her hair was brown, I think. Her strands were thin and straight, I think. She pursued salon treatments and home solutions so often, I don’t have an exact recollection of her official hair color and style.
Many times, she descended to the bathroom in the basement, where wafts of coloring dye and perm solution rose up from the steps. She appeared hours later, her hair sporting a color different or shape from when she had descended.
If Mom arrived home from the salon, and one of us gave her a compliment, she was quick to note, “Oh, the curls are too tight.” Or, “Its too dark a shade of brown.” If the weather was rainy, Mom covered her head in a black or red or gray nylon scarf and asked my father to drop her at the door. Dad complained, but always obliged.
When I hear, “Oh, my hair,” I can still conjure up Mom’s voice in my head.
Hair was a consistent topic of conversation in our household, in particular when there were four girls fighting over the bathroom mirror. In our second family home, the kid’s bath was strategically designed for two mirrors, hence cutting in half the time the bathroom would be occupied by a girl. The intent was solid. The strategy failed. However, my mother did succeed in keeping us out of her bathroom and away from her mirror.
Mom’s hair gradually turned towards lighter shades of gray, interspersed with threads of white. When dementia finally took charge of her mind, she no longer took charge of her hair. Days went by before she washed her hair. Or, her hair remained matted in place with Adorn hairspray, which I thought had no longer been manufactured, but perhaps my father had found a stash on the back shelves of Drug Mart.
Mom, in her dementia, still makes comments about hair. Only now, they are directed at my coif and me. Mom’s statements are usually derisive, but she is only returning the favor of oh so long ago, when one of her children taunted about her changing hair color and style to match the times and her moods.
In Mom’s care home, a wonderful woman named Carol arrives twice weekly, to wash, cut, color, curl the thinning, fading hair of the residents, mostly women. However, Carol’s challenge is somewhat different than her former days as a stylist. Her clients now abhor the water. When once, women might have tilted their hair and sighed at the rush of warm water running through their scalps, now these residents fear water, as a baby might, forgetful, or unknowing of its power to cleanse and heal.
Once a month, I ask caregivers to ensure Mom “gets her hair done.” I usually call in my request on a Monday or Tuesday, after visiting with Mom on a Sunday and noting her needs. Last Sunday, I was out of town. So, I visited with Mom on Tuesday, and asked for the favor. The caregiver on duty said Carol would fit Mom in that day.
Mom and I decided to stroll the corridors and check out what was happening in the community room. We came upon Carol waiting outside of her salon with her list of appointments. She suggested taking Mom then. Heavy sigh. I had hoped to skip that portion of my visit with full knowledge of Mom’s distaste for the exercise she once considered a luxury.
I directed Mom into the salon chair with assistance from another staff member. When we attempted to release the chair back, Mom’s shrieking began.
“No, don’t do that to me!”
“Its Ok, Mom, just hold my hand.” But she yanked her hand away from mine.
“Now, just wait a minute,” she kept screaming.
At once, caregivers from down the hall came running to the salon. “I knew it was our Jeanie Beanie,” a few of them noted, using one of her many nicknames given to her lovingly.
I sat back as caregiver after staff member encouraged Mom to lean back in the chair.
Mom repeatedly shifted from happy to frustrated state, calling out, “No. You’re not going to the do that to me.” And pointed her finger, her mighty, mighty index finger at – me. Yes, this was once again my fault.
Mom yelled like a little child with water dripping down her eyes, as if Johnson’s Baby Shampoo had never invented the slogan, No more tears.
Carol stood in the background. “I’m sure happy you’re here today, she usually gets mad at me.”
And I was thinking, This is the last place I want to be.
Carol and I eventually gave up on the notion of running water through Mom’s hair. Carol would have to perform her duties the old-fashioned way, by hand. We raised the chair back up and Mom appeared content.
I reached out to hold her hand. “Well, Mom, this is revenge for when you scrubbed our scalp and held our heads over the stationary sink, you know, pouring hot water from the measuring cup.”
Plus, I always thought Mom had over-applied Tame conditioner to my hair, but I left the past in the past.
Mom began to laugh, a high-pitched laugh and the remaining staff and caregivers moved on. Soon, H., another resident came along. H. loved Etta James. Carol and I both encouraged H. to sing At Last, which in turn, motivated Mom to sing.
We all began listening to a little Frank Sinatra, Carol amazed by how his voice, the words calmed Mom.
Mom sat patient, while the stylist and I had frank discussions around music and how more of it should be brought into the lives of the residents. She listened along, adding her two cents. “That’s right.” Or “How bout that?”
Mom belted out a few phrases, always completing the last lines of the song. I glanced away from Carol and back to Mom, imagining her as a thirty-year-old Italian beauty, dancing in Cedar Point’s Grand Ballroom, waiting to meet a man while Tommy Dorsey’s band played.
Carol put the finishing touches on Mom’s hair using a little aerosol hairspray – for old times sake.
Mom squealed again and grabbed a towel to hold over her eyes, smashing the front portion of her styled locks.
The activities director offered to take a photo but Mom was restless as my dog when it came to pictures. She never liked having her photo taken.
“Oh, what are you doing with that damn thing,” she stated, grabbing at my smartphone.
“Remembering how beautiful you are,” I said, smiling.
She pushed me aside and walked on.
Ah, Mom could still exact revenge over me, any day.