His Hair Joann Kielar
My father worked at the H. J. Heinz Company. His day started at 5:30 a.m. when he grabbed his striped overalls and lunch-bag and walked out the door. Monday through Friday he headed downhill to East Street, on foot, and down East Street to the Allegheny River near the 16th Street Bridge where the factory sat. At the end of his work day, around the same time as the end of our school day, he walked back through the door, gave his greetings and kisses, grabbed a beer and plopped down on one of the living room chairs.
The chairs in our living room were almost like porch furniture. They and the sofa had removable cushions and wooden arms, broad as those on Adirondack chairs. Dad would set his beer carefully on the economy-carpeted floor next to him. He’d knock off his heavy shoes to reveal white socks, stained various colors around the toes from sweating into the shoes, and put his feet up on the little upholstered stool that matched the chair. On hot days he might peel off his socks as well, but this was an unpleasant sight. His toenails were thick and yellow and looked as if they might curl if my mother had not required him to “cut them things back” before that could happen. She was tough to please.
Dad was easy-going to a fault, but became even more compliant after a beer at the end of a work day; I could ask for almost anything. But I guess it was a bad time to ask for homework help—preparing for a spelling test, for example.
He would prop the spelling book up on his lap and read the first word: “ginger.” I would spell the first word: “ginger, g-i-n-g-e-r, ginger.” He would read the next word: “pickle.” I would spell the next word: “pickle, p-i-c-k-l-e, pickle.”
I’d wait then for another word. Waiting. Waiting. His head is bent over the book. “Did I make a mistake?” But he is not seeing the words. He is sleeping.
Though it was a bad time for homework help, after work was an especially good time to ask him if it was O.K. to comb his hair. This was one of my favorite “daddy” games. He never said “no”, perhaps knowing that he would soon be asleep. “Combing” was a euphemism for all the things that were about to happen to his poor, sleepy head.
When the perfunctory permission had been asked for and granted I would run upstairs to my bedroom and grab the paraphernalia needed for this unwholesome game. After a few minutes of rummaging through my things I’d run back down the stairs carrying a small plastic vanity set-—comb, brush, and hand-held mirror—and a little vinyl cosmetic bag with a zipper that held a multicolored collection of gum-bands, barrettes and bobby pins.
Dad would still be awake, enjoying the last swigs of his cold Iron City. When the bottle was empty I might ask him to blow into it and make it toot; he always obliged. Then I’d run the bottle to the closet under the stairs and fit it into one of the spaces in the cardboard case that would go back to the beer distributor when full.
Now Dad’s eyes were barely open. I’d climb up onto his chair and sit behind him straddling his neck, my stocking-feet resting on the roomy wooden arms of the chair and begin to run the little brush through his hair.
Human beings need sleep. It replenishes. It helps us to escape the cares of the day and to dream out unresolved conflicts. It may be part of a complex system of survival that allows our species to reserve energy and resources. Scientists tell us that humans have a well-developed ability to sleep through all sorts of distractions and disruptions and yet to awaken, instantly, when it is important to do so. No wonder, then, that as I began to brush his hair, my father invariably fell fast asleep. It mattered not if I brushed smoothly, in long, soothing strokes from the front of his head to the back, or if I brushed vigorously, as if I were polishing shoes. Instinct told him that it was best to go right on sleeping.
My father had a wide Polish head with lots of dark, brown hair that remained thick until he was an old man. I recall the last of his teeth falling out when I was still a kid, but the hair stayed with him until the end. Healthy as his hair was, his scalp was covered with a layer of dandruff that rained down on his shoulders at the least provocation.
Imagine, then, what happened when the brushing began. Great snowstorms of dandruff would fall from his head. Some landed on his t-shirt and disappeared into its whiteness. But much of it fell onto the flat arms of the chair near my feet. I could make little patterns in it with the tip of my toe. Some of it stuck in his hair and had to be raked out with that end of my comb where the teeth were small and close together. But this was an unending task for, like the folk tale of the magic porridge pot, his head provided an unending supply of dandruff and combing soon became a bore. No matter. The bag of barrettes had yet to be used.
The edges of dad’s head were useless to me. He may have been a factory worker, but this was 1959. Men kept their hair well-trimmed whether they went to work in a white shirt and tie or in overalls. The expansive, wavy-haired top of his head was my playground. Here I could draw up thick clumps in my fingertips and wrap them in gum bands or clip them into colorful plastic barrettes shaped like bows or flowers or little oval lozenges. The stubborn little short pieces where the top of his head ended and the sides of his head began could be trapped in place with bobby pins. By the time I added my finishing touches his head looked like a flea market.
This was when the second part of the amazing human instinct showed itself. Though he slept through all of the scrubs and yanks and pinnings of my exclusive salon designs, the minute the smell of dinner came wafting through the air into the living room his eyes would pop open, and he’d sit up straight in his chair.
“Better get down from there so the chair doesn’t topple over,” he’d warn. And I would.
Up he’d stand and head off to the kitchen, scattering leftover barrettes and dandruff on the floor. As I tidied up my beauty shop I could hear the annoyance in my mother’s voice coming from the next room.
“Oh, Tom. Get that junk out of your hair. It’s time for dinner. I don’t know why you put up with that. You’re goofier than the kids!”
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, have spent most of my life here, grew up on the Northside and now live in Lawrenceville where I raised three children. I have worked for many years as a visual artist, artist-in-residence in early childhood and elementary school settings and instructor in various art centers and programs around Pittsburgh. I am also a puppeteer and storyteller. One of my daughters is an accomplished writer and my other daughter works with Arts Science Prize in Boston, my son writes hilarious stories and is studying engineering at Penn. My publication history is practically nonexistent—a long-ago article in the Early Childhood journal Young Children. I have, on occasion, told stories at The Moth and once won and went on to participate in the Grand Slam. I head a reading series known as PAGE which is presented at be Galleries in Lawrenceville and offers local writers an opportunity to read a one page work from any genre to an enthusiastic audience. I love short forms—memoir, short story, essay—and have no aspirations to write a novel. My family is the inspiration for much of my work.