Last season, I was on the phone with an old friend while I was taking a walk around town at night. The night is the perfect time to walk, because it is silent and houses are lit up and sometimes, you can witness little bits of family life in the front rooms of the house. I mentioned to my friend that I was passing a house that had a beauty salon hair dryer in the living room and he told me to write a story about that. I came upon the story today and thought I’d share:
Her name was Ruth, he wanted to tell the young kid with the moving company. The kid, with his company baseball cap on backward, tufts of hair sticking out above his ears, had muttered, “She probably won’t even notice this,” as he backed into the doorway. His partner, an older silent man simply pushed the load a little to the right, just missing the door frame and expertly guided Ruth’s chair into the living room.
He had them put the chair in the middle of the living room, right in front of the big picture window, so she would always have the morning sun on her shoulders. That was when she usually sat in the chair, in the mornings. She’d wake early, as she had for over 70 years – he wondered if she’d been an early riser the 14 years of her young life before he’d met her – wash her hair and carefully, very carefully, section and roll her hair.
She’d done this for others much of her life. In fact, she told him when he was away at war during the early years of their marriage, the hair dressing kept her connected to people. Ruth would make sure her shop was the center point for women who missed their husbands, and was there to encourage them to always look their best for themselves first. Many photographs sent to husbands overseas were in fact, taken at Arthur’s Studio, next door to Ruth’s salon, right after she had made sure her women had perfect hair.
When he’d returned from war, he took a job selling encyclopedias door-to-door. Ruth told him he’d be perfect for the job, because of his world travels, his inquisitive nature, and, she teased, “his questionable nature”. She maintained her salon at first to help support them while he started anew. But once he moved on to more successful sales positions, finally landing a lucrative position with a printing company, he told her she could stay home, that they didn’t need the money.
He remembered her eyes on the day he’d said that to her. She looked straight into his own with her deep hazel eyes, her eyelashes quivering only slightly. She hesitated and then reached for his hand.
“I may not explain this well,” Ruth began slowly, “But a beauty shop is a place of refuge for some. Women come to me and want to feel better and I can help them! When I wash their hair, I see their stress flowing down the drain. When we comb them out, or cut their hair and put the final touches on, the moment they smile is special to me. But the best part for me is when I put them under the hair dryer, I give them time for their thoughts and I can tell by their eyes – open or closed – if their thoughts are pleasant. I see their eyes looking into memories past, watch their smiles move inward and their hands resting calmly on their laps and I feel like I am a witness to a very private, but happy moment.”
She’d held his hand for a very long time, her warmth moving from his fingers to his heart and he knew how lucky he’d been to have her.
It was only a few years ago that she’d left the beauty shop, when she’d forgotten where she’d put her scissors, forgot how to turn on the dryer and became frustrated when she couldn’t remember the names of her lifelong customers. He’d encouraged her to take time for herself, closed the shop and tried to occupy her each day with long drives and stories of their days together.
Often, when she’d sit alone in their living room, with her lovely hands quieted upon her lap, he’d watch her eyes and could read nothing. And then he realized what he’d had to do.
The kid with the baseball cap handed him the cord from the chair and asked him where he wanted it plugged in. As they moved the chair a bit to find the outlet, the hair dryer on top hit the window, making a shallow ring across the room and he looked up to see Ruth’s head tilt a bit to listen to the sound. Once plugged in, he tipped the men, thanked them and told them, “Ruth and I appreciate your help.” He wanted to make sure they knew her name and would perhaps remember the simplicity of this effort when their own wives needed a lifeline.
“Darling,” he said to her as he pulled her off the couch. “It’s time to dry your hair.”
He fumbled a bit with the dryer, turned it to the lowest setting and set her slowly into the chair. He felt her relax as she fit into the familiar feel of the seat and put her hands delicately on the armrests. And ever so carefully, he pulled the dryer over her head and watched with anticipation to see if her eyes were looking into memories past, and he hoped he was there with her.