Gray Hairs


Patty Renfro-Wonderly

“Damned old people coming in here raising the damned average. It’s like they’ve got nothing better to do. Gray hairs.” Jacob shook his head as I passed behind him to reach the door to my British History class.

Violet shrugged, catching my eye with an apologetic bent to her head. I didn’t hear her reply but noticed Jacob’s reddened cheeks when they took their seats several rows behind me. As Professor Griffin entered, the lecture hall grew quiet except for a few students munching on snacks and the faint clacking of laptops and tablets. I leaned forward, eager to jot notes in my college-ruled notebook as I’d done forty years before while attending Clark Community College, only six blocks from my childhood home.

I secretly agreed with Jacob. I didn’t think of myself as old, though. At sixty-three I had purple streaks in my hair and dressed like a Bohemian wanderer. I taught yoga and practiced reading tarot cards every day – something I hadn’t done when I was younger. Dad insisted I take business classes and only attend them when I wasn’t working in his accounting office, filing papers, and transcribing his scribbled notes. My brother joined the firm, occupying an office next to Dad while I finished my AA degree and continued filing and typing, ever the dutiful daughter.

When Christopher Thomas Scott walked in one day to deliver some files for Dad, I knew I would marry him. Nicknamed “Shorty” because he was six-feet-four with striking blue eyes and square jaw, Christopher smiled unabashedly as I took the manila folders from him with trembling hands.

“You must be Mr. Livingstone’s daughter,” said Chris.

The way Chris tells the story, I barely smiled at him, nodded, and turned away before he could say anything else. His first impression of me was not favorable, apparently and it wasn’t until Dad arranged for Chris to come to dinner that he realized I’d been dying of embarrassment over my bright red cheeks. Mom fussed over him as much as I wished I could during that first dinner, a family affair with my brother Jeff and his new wife in attendance to make sure Chris passed muster. He did, and we were married a year later, with our first of three sons arriving ten months after that.

The memory faded as I sat listening to Professor Griffin describe the beginnings of what would become the nation of England. I’d missed a few of the slides in his power-point and jotted a note to myself to email him for the full transcript. Twenty minutes later we drew our desks into small groups to discuss the ramifications of Viking invasions on the birth of England. Jacob and Violet, caught between a group in the back of the room and myself, finally dragged their desks toward me and another “Grey Hair.”

I smiled inward at Jacob’s body language. He crossed his arms and legs as soon as we settled. I think he would have crossed his eyes if he could have managed it. He reminded me of my middle son. I was thankful when Violet read the first question we needed to discuss.

“How did the Viking invasions help and hinder efforts to form a united England?” read Violet.

The other “Grey Hair”, Lidia, appointed herself as the official note-taker for the group and stared down at her paper writing the question, a signal that she didn’t feel comfortable speaking. I remembered being that way. I recalled being too timid to speak up in class. I knew how shyness felt, having worked hard to overcome it. I thanked my divine self and the teachings of yoga philosophy for my settled confidence. Since Violet had asked the question and Jacob was still closed off to interaction, I ventured in with my opinion.

“The Viking invasions served to unite the kingdoms to fight a common foe,” I began. “Before that, they’d fought each other for decades. This new threat caused them to make deals and actually listen to each other, learn from each other, and use the intelligence and information each kingdom could gather.”

Jacob narrowed his eyes at me, still hostile that I appeared to do all the reading and watch all the suggested extra broadcasts. He waited, glancing at Violet. Lidia wrote my words in neatly printed lines as if her life depended on the preciseness of her effort. My first instinct when no one else spoke for a moment was to fill the gap of silence, but my yoga training kicked in and I pressed my lips together, remaining silent. And smiling. And looking at Jacob, Violet, and Lidia in turn.

I could hear heated discussions coming from other groups around the room and wished I’d joined one of them instead. These days I was a firm believer in fate and purpose, trusting that I was always in the right place at the right time, so I steeled myself for the experience of participating in this reticent group.

Violet finally gave in and offered her opinion, Lidia dutifully writing every word. Since she agreed with me, adding a slightly different version of my words, I decided to watch and wait. It felt like I was playing a game of cat and mouse, though I had no intention of pouncing on Jacob if he ever spoke. I didn’t owe him anything. I didn’t feel obligated to explain my presence in the class. Hadn’t realized that my good performance was affecting his GPA, but now that I had been made inadvertently aware of that fact, I didn’t feel bad about it. Didn’t plan to change the way I did things to assuage his fragile masculinity. That was my past.

My entire marriage, my entire existence while my sons were growing up, had been about propping up the frailty of men around me. I’d done a damned good job of it. My sons, however, had learned that women had brains, that women were valuable, that we weren’t on the planet to satisfy and serve at their whims. My daughters-in-law were all strong capable women with even stronger opinions. Even Chris, my husband of thirty-seven years, had grown to respect my own evolution from dutiful daughter to strong independent woman and when he walked through his battle with ALS, it had been my strength that bought him dignity at the end of his life.

Violet asked the remaining questions, and she and I took turns sharing our thoughts, with awkward silence filling the gaps between our responses as Jacob and Lidia refused to participate. When Professor Griffin brought us together for final thoughts, I heard Jacob sigh his relief as he scooted his desk back into position behind me.

Lidia smiled a shy smile as she handed me the notepad so I could be the spokesperson for the group. Without thinking, I twisted in my seat and handed the notebook to Jacob. “I think you should be our spokesperson.”

Maybe this “Gray Hair” wasn’t done raising men to recognize the strength of women.

August 10, 2020 22:52

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Cathryn V
04:37 Nov 13, 2020

Hi Patty, Your story held my interest. I like the scene description and the protagonist's thoughtful restraint. It showed how she'd matured through her years and had indeed earned her gray hairs. A few comments if you are interested: The ending implies the story is about a woman who has gained self-esteem as she ages. It also has an edge of animosity toward Jacob. There are a lot of pieces thrown in, like her marriage and her edu history that seem outside of the theme. Thank you for sharing!


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Mustang Patty
15:26 Oct 25, 2020

Hi there, Thank you for sharing this story. All too often, 'gray hairs,' are considered a drain on society - and now, as someone about to turn 62, I realize I'm just as vibrant as ever. Even with the gray -- Your prose flows well, and reading the story was a joy, ~MP~ If you get a chance, could you please read one of my stories?


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Shea K
04:36 Aug 24, 2020

Wonderful story! Very well written, and I like the message.


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