My Grandmother’s Hair

grandmother,hair,family,Bessie,Oxford,Sherrill,Deb Trotter

My Grandmother Sherrill’s hair was exactly 51 inches long and the color of fine silver. Every night she performed the same ritual — brushing out her hair. It was a task that took her exactly thirty minutes.

As a child, I observed grandma’s ceremonial tradition with a reverent fascination that, to this day, knows no equal. It was one of few intimate moments I shared with my mother’s mother, who seldom discussed her private history with others. Her early life was like the tiny pieces of fabric she sewed into our family quilts — colorful, fascinating, and tightly bound, with no visible flaws or hints as to the personal history hidden beneath the surface.

Ten years after Grandma Sherrill died, I had the chance to revisit my grandparents’ empty old house. I’d had other opportunities to do so, but mom was always with me, and I wanted to go alone. I parked my car as far away from my uncle’s house as I could. My grandparent’s home belonged to him now, was on his land. He’d expect to go with me … or he’d ask me to explain why I wanted to go back to a house where no one had lived for fifteen years. I’d asked to go there once before, but he’d insisted the house wasn’t safe. The wood had rotted. The outside walls had begun to lean in. And there was absolutely nothing there to see. What did I think I was going to find when I got there?

I had no answer for him. I just wanted to go. Needed to go. The older I grew, the more insistent that need became. And the need became a voice. It was the voice of longing.

As I neared the house from the road I could already tell my uncle was right. The front wall on the outside of the old house had begun to sag. Grass and weeds had replaced Grandma Sherrill’s prized gladiolas in her once magnificent garden. I had no doubt that mice, squirrels and birds had likely taken up residence inside, but I didn’t plan on staying too long and doubted they’d bother me. I glanced up at my uncle’s house on the distant hill and knew he could see me quite clearly should he look out the window. But it was worth the risk. Grandma Sherrill was worth the risk.

I walked up the brick steps and opened the door. There wasn’t much to see. As a matter of fact, the little front room looked almost the same as I’d remembered it did. Bare, except for a tattered love seat near the window. Slowly, I turned to face the main part of the house … I walked down past the bedrooms and into the living room. Before I realized I was doing it, I found myself caressing the tattered wallpaper in the hallway that led to my grandparents’ bedroom. I stood in the doorway and turned to face the sunlight that streamed through the tall windows, recalling the nights long ago when Grandma Sherrill sat and talked to me as she brushed that hair … hair so fluid and soft that it streamed down to the floor like a pool of liquid silver.

I could see the dust moving in the hot air and followed its pattern around the room until it stopped against the doorway to the attic. A shadow danced into a nearby corner that had once been grandma’s only private space. I could see what had once stood in that corner. A simple wooden chair. A small pine table adorned only in white milk paint. And the one thing my grandmother was most proud of … a chipped mirror, with a small crack in the lower right corner … propped up against the wall. Grandpappy had angled that mirror himself, just for Grandma’s benefit.

“Caswell, that might be just about perfect,” Grandma said to him as she sat down to study her reflection.

She instructed us (her grandchildren) not to touch her mirror, “not even one chick-pea of an inch.” (It was awfully difficult to stay away from the mirror once she’d made such a fuss over it, but when Grandma used a specific reference to an inch — like chick-pea — we knew she meant business. Believe me, you did not want to cross Bessie Sherrill.)

In spite of her obsession with that mirror, my grandmother was not a vain woman. She had a few small, treasured objects — like the pink glass chicken candy dish my Uncle Parks had given her for her birthday years ago — nothing of any real value. But she treasured what she referred to as her little make shift dresser in the bedroom … the chair, the table, and the mirror … probably because it afforded her the meager luxury of a little time to herself.

“There’s never enough time to please a busy hen,” she’d always say, hopping from one task to another.

But in late afternoon, even grandma began to slow down. When dusk folded into the edges of the walls where the wallpaper had peeled off, the old house would murmur its pleasant creaks and groans. It was a little like ghost music — a familiar sound that grandma called settlin’ in.

In conjunction with the settlin’ in, there were other subtle noises. Family sounds I had grown to love. Clean dishes being stacked on the shelves. The soft thump of the iron against the ironing board, smoothing out tomorrow’s cotton linens. The creaking of Grandpappy’s chair as he crossed his legs and prepared to read the newspaper.

Before too long, the remaining sounds would begin to die away, and Grandma would shuffle by on her way to the bathroom. “Time to wash up,” she say as she closed the door. She’d emerge five minutes later, smiling, and wearing one of her flowered nightgowns. Then, she’d nod to me … just me … a private signal that meant now she was headed to her little corner in the bedroom, and I was welcome to join her if I’d like.

I’d sit and wait on the edge of the walnut bed Grandpappy had made Grandma as a wedding gift. Before long, she would sit down in the chair and remove the lid of the pink sewing basket that stood on the pine table, reaching inside for her hair brush with the carved wooden handle. There was always a moment — barely five seconds — that I would catch her studying that brush with an odd expression of wonder, as if she’d never seen it before.  Then she’d notice her reflection in the mirror and simply set the brush down, as if it was just any old brush she could’ve picked up at the five and dime.

By that time I would usually lean forward so I could study her movements. Grandma’s hands captivated me. They were both graceful and grotesque. For one second, her hands would float around to the back of her neck to remove the hairpins … and in the next, the joints of her misshapen fingers struggled to unwind the bun at the nape of her neck.

If grandma ever noticed that her arthritis frightened me, she never mentioned it. I took care to act as if I hadn’t even noticed those swollen, painful knuckles, for I knew that long ago, those same fingers and hands had been just as tiny and lovely as grandma had been.

Bessie Hill Oxford Sherrill, my maternal grandmother, was a walking, talking saga from another era. She’d grown up wearing long dresses and aprons woven from cotton that grew on her family’s land. And while she’d been taught to sew and clean and iron … and kill and skin and cook almost anything … she’d also been treasured, and perhaps even a bit pampered — for being the beauty of the family.

To be beautiful — so much so that you were famous for it — was a rare thing among mountain folk. I only found out about Grandma’s legendary beauty through my great aunts — her sisters. They loved telling stories about how Bessie drove men mad, and how the sight of her long dark hair and piercing black eyes had once, “took Jeb Tolbert’s breath clean away, so’s he almost fainted.”

I was never sure who Jeb Tolbert was, or why his name always surfaced when grandma’s hair was mentioned. I got the distinct feeling that he was quite a catch, but obviously not as good a catch as my grandpappy, John Caswell Sherrill.

When I study the treasured photograph of my grandmother as she was at the age of nineteen, it still astonishes me. Not because she was beautiful, but because I never really knew that young woman staring back at me. The dreams she must’ve had, the life she must’ve imagined for herself. I never could (and still can’t) comprehend how it would feel to be young and smart and exquisitely beautiful … and if the reports were true, so beautiful that men would travel as far away as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia just so they could say they’d seen that little Oxford lady with the long dark hair.

There are no photographs of Grandma Sherrill with her hair down. In the fashion of that era, her hair is pinned up in a bun near the top of her head. Her beauty is undeniable. I do wish I could see her hair, but all I can do is tell you what she told me.

“I was never allowed to cut my hair. Not even to trim it,” Grandma said. “Papa thought it shone so because I was born of a full moon, but Mama said hair like mine was like a-tellin’.”

A-tellin’ (a telling) was a mountain expression for prophesy. Grandma Sherrill explained that people who hailed from way way over yonder believed long, dark hair like hers was a sign … a prediction. I’m not even certain grandma understood what her hair represented to the supersitious folk of her youth, except that they took it for granted that it belonged as much to them as it did to her. And she began to think of her hair as a cross to bear rather than a blessing.

“It was a sad thing, not being the owner of my own hair,” she said, “you just can’t know what a terrible burden it was.”

“But Grandma,” I said, “Aren’t you glad now? That you never cut your hair? I would give anything to have hair like yours.”

I was insistent. Surely she must know by now, after all those years, what a special thing it was to have hair almost as long as she was tall. To have been so lovely and admired. Famous, even.

“No,” she’d say. “I still believe if I’d been allowed to cut it, my hair would be thicker. Prettier. And it wouldn’t take me so long to wash it and dry it and braid it.” She looked in the little cracked mirror in front of her and sighed. “All my babies ever wanted to do was pull at it. All my friends wanted me to talk about what it felt like to have hair that every woman on earth envied. All their husbands hinted that I should let it loose so they could see it down, just once, they’d say. Only it was never just once.”

As she talked, Grandma would unpin her hair and slowly pull it out of the long braid that kept it managable. She’d place the hair over her left shoulder, where it would lay across her lap and rest in the folds of her nightgown, then fall from her left knee down to the floor.

As the years progressed and the nights grew darker, Grandma’s sighs grew deeper and the tone of her voice more plaintive. And though her stories were the same ones she’d always told, they felt sadder somehow.

When I was nineteen and home from college for Christmas, Grandma agreed to let me brush her hair, something she’d never done before. Whether she felt I’d earned the right to care for it, or whether she was too tired to attend to the hair herself, I’m not sure. But it was a good feeling … an honor, really …  to be assigned the task I had envied her for so long.

After I finished brushing out her hair, she wound it back up, braided it, and pinned it to the bun at the nape of her neck. I noticed she was smiling as she put the last pin into place.

“Did I ever tell you,” she said, “that your grandpappy was the only man I ever knew who never once asked me to let my hair down ?”




4 Responses to My Grandmother’s Hair

  • Simply divine!

  • Such a thoughtful and lovely blog. Best wishes on your new adventure, Deb! xxoo

  • L. E. Carmichael says:

    This is absolutely lovely, Deb. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Taminie says:

    What a wonderful memory, so lovingly told. Your childhood photo looks just like your beautiful grandmother.
    My grandmother had waist length hair throughout her life. She wore it in a bun that was wrapped around a doughnut shaped form, made from her own hair. My grandfather said he used to be able to keep track of her in the grocery store because he could see her bun above the shelves……

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