A Letter to Mom, #2
The second in a series of four letters I wrote to my Mom with stuff I couldn't/wouldn't/didn't say to her when she was alive.
Do you remember the question we often got when you introduced Jarrett and me to another grown-up? Before they even started speaking, I knew what was coming. All they had to do was look down at us with their sweet smiles. “Where’d you get your red hair?” they’d ask, as if they expected us to say that our fairy godmother had pointed her wand at us and accidently caught our hair on fire. I answered that question so many times I got to the point that I had to suppress a giggle before I could cough up a response.
Our red hair captivated people. The rarest of all hair colors, red hair holds mystery, imagination, and power that other hair colors just can’t match. I’m sure the people who asked us where our red hair came from didn’t mean any harm—it was their way of saying how special we were—but it always made me uncomfortable. I never knew what to say, and, in my snarkier teenage moments, replied, “Oh, my mom craved strawberries when she was pregnant with me.” They would laugh and I would be able to move on. You did crave strawberries, right, Mom?
The truth is I didn’t know. What I knew was that you had black hair before it turned a stunning silver, and from what you told us, so did our deceased father, i.e., your first husband, Bob, and your first daughter, Marlee.
Conveniently, Norm, the second man you married when I was five, who then legally adopted Jarrett and me, had red hair, so, whenever adults asked me, “Where’d you get your red hair?” I started answering, “From our dad, he has red hair.”
Although I knew it was a lie, answering this way made me feel more like we were a normal family, like Norm was our real father who had passed on his curly, red hair to his children. That’s what he wanted—to be seen as our real dad—that’s what you wanted, too. It’s what we all wanted.
It was a harmless little lie. Or so I thought. But it became the first loose thread in the unraveling of your deepest secret.
As I write this, I realize that I don’t remember ever seeing Dad (Norm)’s red hair. He was 49 when I was born and had already lost most of his hair. The photos I have of him when he’s not wearing a hat and before his hair turned grey are in black and white, so I can only take it on faith that he even had red hair. His younger brother, Bernard, had red hair. I remember his. In fact, he went by the nickname “Red,” so I’m pretty sure Dad’s curly locks were indeed red.
My hair’s no longer red, Mom. I first realized it when a hairdresser responded to a casual comment I made about my hair color. “Oh, you used to be a redhead?” she asked. Her words cut as deeply as if she had taken the scissors and stabbed me in the neck. How could she think I wasn’t a redhead? Of course, I was a redhead. I AM a redhead!
Being a redhead was part of my identity, much like being Catholic. I still think of myself as a redhead, even though I eventually admitted that my hair color became something other than red. A new hairdresser once called it “champagne.” I liked that. At least it was still different. She said people pay a lot of money to get hair my color.
After I lost my hair to chemo, it came back much whiter. Much curler too. Although the curls will probably relax over time, I think the color is here to stay. Being a redhead on the inside, though, is something I’ll never lose. I Imagine it’s like a cherished limb, now amputated that continues to signal pain.
You never liked things that were different, Mom, things that stood out. I wonder what you thought about our red hair. Did it make you uncomfortable to be around us in public? Was it too showy? Did it expose too much of the secret you wanted so desperately to hide?
I didn’t like my hair much as a teenager. It was not only red, but thick and wavy when the style was blonde, long, and straight. Even then I couldn’t be straight! And I certainly never fit in.
If my red hair made you uncomfortable, it was only the first of many things about me that made you squirm. In elementary school, you thought I was too bossy. And remember the day you asked me why I always had my arm around all the other little girls? I didn’t know that I did, but I stopped myself after that. And what about all the times you told me I wasn’t ladylike enough? I hated wearing dresses, preferred exploring the woods or shooting baskets over playing with dolls or other girly pursuits. I was not the girl you wanted me to be.
By the time I was a teenager, it was my weight that worried you—still skinny by today’s standards but heftier than you thought I should be. You were so afraid I would get fat that it became one of the only things we talked about. Until, that is, you found out I was a lesbian. Then we stopped talking about anything important.
That’s when you knew you were beaten. I would never become the daughter you dreamed of having, the daughter to replace the one taken from you by polio before I was even born. You had lost, not just the battle, but the war.
Sadly, you believed it was your sins that had done you in. God was punishing you for some unspeakable sin or sins and that’s why I turned out the way I did. If only you could have told me the truth, especially about my red hair. I hope I would have listened and tried to understand. It’s what I longed for from you when you learned my truth—that you’d listen and try to understand. I think I could have done that then for you. I know I could now. I lived too much of a life to not have developed deep compassion for the choices people make, right or wrong, explicable or inexplicable. I would still love you, Mom, if you had told me the truth.
But there is no “now” available to us anymore because you’re gone. All I can do is tell my story and what pieces of yours I’ve been able to stitch together. There will always be unraveled threads. Without you or Dad showing me where to put the pieces, all I can do is follow the strands that lead me somewhere and let the others go. I don’t know if it will ever be enough, but I will always cherish what I learn about the truth, just like I cherish the memory of my red hair.
Annette's Wanderings, including a serialized memoir, If You Only Knew: A Memoir of Family Secrets and Their Undoing, is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.