After leaving Calgary six years ago I never saw her again. She passed away last year, in her home country, surrounded by family, and she had the most beautiful hair I had ever cut and colored, and I had never cut and colored hair before I met her, or after. She just assumed I could do it. The fairy flies into the room, and within minutes of meeting him she looks across the kitchen table, lifts the box of Clairol with one hand and the scissors with another, and says - “can you do this for me?” So instead of donning my indignant reaction around the stereotypical assumptions people have made about effeminate gay men in my half-century of living, I smile and say, “sure, I’d love to.”
While I massaged her head with black dye and combed it out in preparation for a sizeable trim, she would roll cigars from curved sheets of tobacco sent to her by relatives all the way from the Philippines. When other white family members spoke of her past, in stage whispers, it was a slightly gleeful kind of exoticizing shaming that they seemed to take semi-delight in.
“She was born in a prison in China. Her mother was Chinese and her father was Filipino. They were both imprisoned for opium dealing.”
“She has six kids, all girls and one boy. Two of the girls snagged white North American husbands online. The boy’s always sick or in trouble and getting money from his sisters. One of them married a rich guy in Switzerland. All of Roberta’s kids are from the same guy - a married man she had an affair with for twenty years, and she was his wife’s best friend!”
These little tidbits made me like her more. No one, not even Roberta herself, seemed sure of her age, but it probably all began somewhere not far from the nineteen twenties.
I met Roberta in Calgary in the late nineties not long after she had come to Canada to care for my brother’s youngest son. Her daughter, my brother’s second wife, was a trained nurse who could only get support staff work in a nursing home and had to go back to work right after the birth. Roberta was, in a very real sense, unpaid labour. In a small suburban bungalow for four - there were six at first, and then seven - she slept in the same bed with her youngest grandson for the first five years of his life. She was his mother and grandmother, and she was often made to feel unwelcome in my brother’s home, and from time to time would leave for extended periods and stay with other friend’s who had left the Philippines for similar reasons around family and childcare. I always felt that she tied for first place with my mother for beauty and grace of the hard won kind.
So I did her hair. If I sit and close my eyes and conjure memories from that time the most calming ones, in the midst of turbulence and relative mayhem, are those monthly, ritualistic moments with her in the bathroom, my hands feeling the warm water through the plastic gloves, re-reading the directions from the Clairol box to make sure I wasn’t screwing up, her face hard pressed against a towel as I rinsed, the thickness and the blue black darkness of those shiny, lush follicles, and then the move into the kitchen for the final cut. She was a patient and appreciative subject, and would make rice and delicious fried pork for me whenever I - the neophyte hairdresser - arrived. I would make a Greek salad and she would pick lightly at it, pushing the black olives to the side and later giving them to her middle grandson who had an over developed taste for popping many of them into his mouth at the same time and almost choking on the pits.
We wouldn’t talk a lot. There was a language difference that made it difficult. But we seemed to communicate very well. And when my own mother died in Calgary, not long after moving there with me and adding one more to an already crowded bungalow, Roberta urged all of us, on the day of the funeral, to refrain from washing our hair or raking the leaves in the front yard for fear of blowing our souls away with the dead. It was part of a ritual she never fully explained, and although I respected it, I couldn’t take part in that one. I’m way too much of a fairy to deliver a eulogy on a bad hair day.
But I could be her hairdresser. And when I overheard remarks from her to her daughter about how I was just like a woman, the way I pitched in and helped with all of the wife’s tasks - without having to question her, or even be wary of her gender politics, I just decided that this was a very positive thing, and that I would make the most of it. The sudden loss of my own mother made me acutely aware of how time just doesn’t stand still long enough for all good things to come full circle between loved ones before we have to say goodbye.
Long before I met Roberta I had already made a very conscious decision not to become a hairdresser, despite the encouragement of the people in my life who felt an appropriate ‘trade’ would be my lot in life. And over the years I have felt grateful for my choice. I would have been closer to Sweeney Todd than Miss Clairol. But with Roberta I willingly and lovingly made an exception that enriched my life with an unexpected and satisfying routine. Instead of the demon barber of Fleet Street I was a Steel Magnolia for a short period, and the blossoms of that memory, that rich and marvelous routine, have never died.