There’s something creepy about holding her hair. I don’t want it, but I don’t know how to get rid of it. That’s not true. If I wanted it gone, I could toss it in the trash. But I need to show respect for the dead. After all, it was her mother, my grandma, who taught me that.
Orma Jean Cales was her name. Her picture hangs in my hall between a picture of her mother and father, who were my grandparents, and a picture of their parents. In the picture her hair is bobbed short, not at all like the auburn swirl of curls I hold in my hand. Tied off with a red satin ribbon, someone, her mother probably, cut it from her resting head after she died at age fourteen.
Grandma kept the hair in a powder jar until she died at age one hundred three and a half. After grandma, my mother was the keeper, and then Aunt Lila took custody. I don’t know if either of them wanted their sister’s hair, but they kept it, as I have since my aunt passed it to me. I didn’t know how to refuse; after all, I was next in line.
Grandma told me that this daughter of hers, this mysterious aunt of mine, this sister to my mother, died of leakage of the heart. I pictured a pink valentine, dripping blood. But there was no pink valentine. It was a simple heart defect that today wouldn’t cause a surgeon to miss his tee time. Just go in and darn a little hole, do a little mending.
Orma Jean didn’t have that option for her leaking heart. Heart surgery wasn’t even thought of back then, at least not in the mining camps of West Virginia. At least not in time for Orma Jean.
One day Grandma went out to see if the chickens had started laying again and to plant some rows of potatoes before the moon turned. My mother and Aunt Lila were to watch over Orma Jean. Keep her quiet, Grandma told them, but let her do anything she wanted as long as she wouldn’t get hurt.
What Orma Jean wanted was to bake an angel food cake. She was too weak to finish beating it, all those egg whites took time to stiffen up, so her sisters took turns beating it for her, and put it in the big oven to bake. She sat and watched the clock until it was time to take it our and set it on the hearth to cool, her pale blood-starved face flushed pink from the oven heat and the anticipation of surprising her mother.
The cake was a beauty, tall and golden brown on top, reeking of fresh ground vanilla bean. Orma Jean stuck a beeswax candle in the center and lit it when she saw her mother coming up the path. Happy Birthday, they all sang, as she came in the door. Happy Birthday, dear Mother, Happy Birthday to you. It was the best birthday she’d ever had, Grandma told her girls. And that was a good memory to hold on to, because the child with the leaking heart soon weakened and caught pneumonia, at least they thought so, and drifted into death.
Today I dust her picture and find myself thinking about the child who would have grown into a woman, a wife, a mother – the child who would have grown into my Aunt Orma Jean. And I think about her hair, trying to decide what to do with it. The answer comes to me as clearly as if she whispered it in my ear. I go to the computer and click my way to a website:
Hair must be at least ten inches long. It is. Can’t be highlighted. It isn’t. No dreadlocks. No problem. Hair swept from the floor can’t be used. It wasn’t. Hair must be in a ponytail. And tied with red satin. Hair cut years ago is usable. Perfect.
Orma Jean, you are about to become a bona fide donor.
The hair will be sent to Locks of Love, an organization that supplies wigs for children who have permanent hair loss, most from a condition called alopecia areata. I loop the curl around my hand and ease it into a plastic baggie, then inside a bubble wrap envelope.
Before I lick the envelope, I slip a card inside
Sorry this took so long. Love Orma Jean