The day I helped my mother pick out a wig

By Kandace Chapple
@KandaceChapple

We pulled into the local wig shop. It was in a rundown little plaza next to the Ben Franklin Five and Dime in Traverse City. A shop we’d driven by our entire lives and had not once noticed the existence of. But now here we were. My older sister was driving, complaining about the steep little drive in, then, hitting the curb, bouncing over it as we entered. My mother was in the front seat with her, and my twin sister was in the backseat with me. We three girls squealed; my mother was silent. I was 16, and it was her first diagnosis.

My mother had covered her bald head with a maroon cotton scarf that morning, a wrap made by her sister, my Aunt Barb. It was one of a dozen she’d made for my mom—in paisleys and pinks, neutrals and blues, polka dots and flowers. They all knotted at the back of her neck, like a do-rag, a tough look softened by my mother’s round face, her short stature, her ready laugh.

When my mother’s hair had started to fall out six months earlier, she’d called on her sister to remedy the situation. Aunt Barb, the seamstress in the family, had driven up three hours from Flint without question. She had arrived on a Friday evening, measured my mother’s head, made a template on the old Singer in the back bedroom, the kind that swung up and out of the desk itself, reassured my mother, stayed two nights, then drove home to make 11 more.

While my mother still couldn’t bring herself to like them, they offered her a way to go out in public. She never let anyone see her bald head, even we kids only saw it on occasion. (And each occasion was a shock.)

She didn’t usually risk being outside of the house without a scarf, but one afternoon she was only grabbing dinner from the chest freezer in the garage when my new boyfriend walked in. I’d stepped out behind her, going where, I don’t recall, when we both saw him at the same time.

“Jude!” he said. My mother’s name was Judy, but everyone called her “Jude.” Even in moments like this.

“Tim!” my mother said, reaching up to touch her bald head with one hand, while holding a frozen packet of venison in the other.

He didn’t look away, and he didn’t look down. We had just started dating. I hadn’t told him everything about her cancer, not yet. But there it was, our family’s harsh reality on display.

We stood frozen, Tim in the garage, me halfway out the door, my mother with the lid of the freezer open to the summer air.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked.

My mother, forgetting her bald head for a moment, bent back into the chest freezer. “I better thaw two packages if you’re staying for dinner,” she said. “And you’re staying!”

My mother told me later, much later, that she thought in that moment I should marry him. Six years later, I did.

That was in June. It was December when we stood in the wig store, her bald head covered in a wrap. My mother had to go to my father’s office party. She wanted to go, but she really didn’t want to go without hair. She was tired then, all the time, but she loved people. Perhaps a wig would release her back into society with less scrutiny.

We spread out and looked at the wigs on display in the tiny little shop, rows of them lining the walls. Every one, every single one in the shop seemed like a funny prop to me and my sisters. Should my mom go with blond? Long tresses? Or red, fire red? We poked and prodded, but no one could bring themselves to take one and help my mother try it on. My mother kept to herself, ignoring our laughter for the most part.

Finally, it was me, her youngest daughter, who braved it.

I picked out a wig of jet black, short cropped hair. I slipped it over my own brown short, cropped hair. I tapped my mother on her shoulder, her back to me as she pretended to browse.

“You could go with Aunt Barb’s look,” I said. She turned to see her daughter wearing a replica of her sister’s hair.

“Oh my god, what have you got?” she laughed, and for a moment we were all laughing. But the moment was over quickly, and reality returned. It was my mother’s turn to try on a wig.

Here, let me help. The woman behind the counter spoke up at last. She took my mother away from us and set her down at a table with an oval mirror perched upon it. She asked my mother for a picture of what she used to look like—“before.” My mother produced a photo from last summer. In it, she was laughing. My mother was always laughing, even today when others would weep.

The woman studied it, then selected a pale wig, one streaked with light gray and blond highlights, short but not too short, close to my mother’s style, but, to our eyes, nowhere near it.

My mother took off her scarf, Aunt Barb’s wrap, and revealed her bald head to the woman. We all braced ourselves, but the woman did not flinch. My mother smoothed down the few gray wily hairs that sprung out above her ears and laughed at them, smoothing, laughing, smoothing, looking down. The woman fit the wig on my mother’s head and primped it. Here, look in the mirror, she said, and added, you look beautiful. My sisters and I watched from behind, standing in a silent row of three.

My mother tucked the back pieces up a smidge and looked over her shoulder at us. What do you think? She was uncertain and embarrassed, even with us. She hated to ask; she had to ask.

I nodded. Yes, Mom, it’s nice.

“I’ll take it,” she said, yanking it off with one pull and replacing her scarf with a practiced hand.

It was the only wig my mother tried on that day. She took it home, and wore it to that party. She said the wig was hot and she thought it might fall when she got up to dance. She said she got up and danced a little anyway.

She rarely wore the wig after that. Because, as it turned out, it did nothing to change who she was. My mother was my mother, kind and thoughtful and warm, her blue eyes beautiful, her smile quick, her laughter contagious.

And it didn’t matter what she had on her head.

Kandace Chapple is the publisher and editor of Grand Traverse Woman Magazine. She lives in Michigan and is married with two sons. The little wig shop is gone now but she still looks for it every time she drives by the plaza. Connect with Kandace on Facebook and Twitter.

Drawing by Jo Lane

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