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  • Nanny's hair was the blackest I had ever seen as a child. She looked like a movie star. Long, red nails, high heels and a fur coat. I spent an eternity in her bedroom observing and learning what it might be like to become a woman in front of her mirror. Large bottles of assorted perfume adorned her dresser, jewellery lay abundant spilling forth from a tiled, black box that housed a ballerina that twirled to the sound of beautiful music. I wound her up and watched her dance.
    My early childhood was perfumed with the scent of perming lotion and the sound of self-disclosure. Nanny's salon provided endless hours of exploration and entertainment for children whose mother worked long hours. My older brother and I stole countless packets of chewing gum and cigarettes to retreat to the hidden cellar. We lit them up one at a time; took a few puffs, coughed then stubbed them out. We covered our tracks with Juicy Fruit and PK gum before climbing out through the cellar opening to escape when our childish games were over.
    My grandmother's cigarette purse was made of mustard vinyl and weighed down by loose change. I listened to the sound of coins as I begrudgingly walked to the shop. The journey seemed like the worst kind of torture to young feet. By the time I got there I was ready to indulge myself in a sweet treat. I gobbled it greedily ensuring that it was all gone by the time I returned to her house, feeling guilty but never satisfied.
    Nanny lay in the hospital bed looking thin and frail. Each visit I believed she was going to get better. The sound of her cough marked years of heavy smoking. It took her near death before she gave them up but that wasn't what killed her. Here she lay now dependent upon us. My mother was weary from worry, tired from all the secrets.Family emerged from nowhere. I met cousins I never knew existed. Sickness seemed to draw some like a magnet, others like vultures.
    Nanny is painting. I watch her in her bedroom. She paints the backs of old advertising signs from her business and seems to find parts of herself in the colours she applies. She stands in a heavy robe, brush in hand and continues in the dim light. She paints the sea. She paints boats. She paints to find comfort that I do not understand. I watch her in silence and I do not speak.I leave her alone in the place she wants to be.
    My arms ache from brushing. I have been brushing Nanny's hair for what feels and seems like an eternity. She enjoys this massage. I continue each stroke. As it becomes difficult I wish for her to fall asleep before I begin to resent her too much. Her hair is now streaked with grey. Her fingernails remain red from the polish I have applied that morning. She lays there, her body weakened from sickness and disease. When she finally drifts into sleep I carefully lift my arm. I place the brush on her dresser and quietly tip toe from her room.
    Today when I visit Nanny she rises from her bed and ushers me into the remainder of her salon. What once was a hive of hairdressing activity, smells and voices has stilled itself into one last room with a huge mirror. Today I will receive my first and last hairdressing lesson. I am almost twelve. I have been in this salon enough times to walk it with my eyes shut. I know the faces and the voices of particular women who have not failed to leave their impression. Some still stop by to visit for a while. Others have long gone to find someone else to tend to their hair.
    I look at my grandmother in the mirror and still see a proud and defiant woman. In my childish mind I see her waltz into this room uniformed with scissors and comb in hand, distinct voice, a woman of individual style, a woman who is best left uncontained. I listen to her instructions. I mix the dye; its pungent aroma scents the room. I part her hair. I apply the paste like paint covering her grey roots. I part more hair. The comb glides through easily. Section by section until it is complete. We wait for the colour to set. I listen to her tell me about my mother when she was a little girl. I know she is sorry for leaving her behind. Time is stealing opportunity, the opportunity to say I love you, the opportunity to say I am sorry. I am still a long way off from understanding but here in her salon I retrace the steps she can no longer follow with deft hands. Enough time has elapsed and I begin the process of winding rollers into damp hair. I follow and obey commands. Her hair has dried. I finish with the brush and see Nanny's smiling face in the mirror for the last time. She dies on the first of October, 1975, eight days before my twelfth birthday and to this day I have never forgotten her hair...
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