Touching: How a Weekly Hair Appointment Saved My Aunt

What is life without touch? Very lonely indeed. This is the story of how a weekly hair appointment brought meaning and connection into the life of a very special lady: my “Aunt D.”

Every Saturday morning Aunt D had a standing appointment with Michael. Her hairdresser. Later in the day, after buying her favorite brand-name groceries at Penn Fruit – a new and enormous supermarket that my bargain-hunter mom called “overpriced” – Aunt D would stop by our house sporting a two-inch-high, freshly lacquered hairdo. And with frozen peas and ice cream sitting in the trunk, she’d chat for hours perched on the edge of one particular arm chair, sucking peppermints to keep from smoking and jangling car keys between her knees.

Her scent was unmistakable.

The second I realized she was in the house I bolted out of my room and down the back stairs – regardless of whatever Billboard Hot 100 hit was playing on my radio. Because…well, she was Aunt D.  (And yes, we had back stairs. No front stairs. Just back stairs.)

Hair salon 1960s

There was a kind of rhythm to Aunt D’s week, all of which involved maintaining her hairdo. She once told me that after her appointment with Michael, she wouldn’t touch her hair again until Wednesday. With the possible exception of adding more hairspray. She slept with a bonnet covering her head to keep her coiffure from getting mashed. Come Wednesday morning she’d sort of “pick it back up” with a comb. Only on Friday would she brush it out. Feel the bristles against her scalp, in preparation for the next day’s hair appointment. It was as though touching her own hair was not in the rule book. Her hair was Michael’s domain.

Michael is likely the only person who touched my aunt in those days – in a way that aroused her senses, that is. She wouldn’t have missed her appointment for anything.  Maybe because her husband wasn’t the sort of guy a person could get close to. Most nights he came home late. Like really late. And my poor aunt always waited dinner. They never had any children.

But Aunt D was out of touch in other ways, too. While she had a job, she didn’t socialize. Didn’t like what she called “outsiders.” She sewed. Knitted. Watched TV.  And despite the fact that she lived a mere ten-minute drive straight up the highway, we rarely went to see her. Something about too many breakables.

Funny, huh? As though she herself was fragile. Breakable. Could not be touched.

The ten-minute drive might as well have been ten hours. To me, the distance was palpable.  I could not reach her. It was as though some invisible wall existed. I might ask for occasional help with something. Deciphering an insanely hard sewing pattern, for instance. But we never touched or hugged.

However, it’s touch that makes us real. Without it, we are disconnected, not only from others, but from ourselves. Even from own skin. If we are not touched by others we do not “feel” loved. For infants, touch is love.

I learn something new whenever I open my copy of Ashley Montagu’s marvelous compendium on the subject,  Touching – The Human Significance of the Skin, first published in 1971.  Here the author relates touching, or rather the lack of it, to loneliness:  “Loneliness is a state of being unconnected, to be out of touch with others, of wanting to be with somebody who isn’t there, of having nobody to turn to who can affirm one’s essential humanity.”

Michael affirmed my lonely aunt’s humanity. While she was not a religious woman, and she would never admit to this, her relationship with Michael was rather like that of parishioner and priest. He performed a weekly ritual, something akin to the “laying on of hands.” And every Saturday morning, his healing touch renewed her spirit.  After her appointment she seemed alive, confident, happy. Ready to connect.  To be in touch.

I know this because on Saturdays, after her appointment with Michael and after she bought her groceries, Aunt D sat on the edge of that arm chair for hours. We didn’t watch TV. (The TV was in another room.)  Or work on some crazy pattern.  (We only did that at her place, and only a few times a year.) She smiled her bright red lipsticked smile while we talked about all kinds of things, in a house with back stairs instead of front stairs where people ate dinner early and not late. And once in a while I thought about – just thought about – the frozen peas and ice cream melting in her car.

My aunt may not have been a “huggy” person.  But she “touched” me in other ways, ways that I will never forget.  She took me to my first swimming lessons, and applauded my first attempts at sewing and painting. And before I went to France in my sophomore year of college, she stopped by the house  and slipped $200 into my hand.

Aunt D is quite elderly now. She lives alone in a senior residence and we never see one another. And I still “feel” her touching my life.  FFG

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