When the other kids in kindergarten were happily topping their stick figure parents’ heads with brown or yellow tempera, I was stretching across the brown butcher paper to reach the black and white paint so I could give my parents the gray hair they had in real life. They were 40 and 45 when I was born and for many years, my mom didn’t color her hair. When I was a freshman in high school, this changed dramatically.
My mother had quit her job at the park district office after the director got fired. My dad was about three years from retirement, but they were still in debt, as usual, so my mom decided to go to an employment agency.
“The funniest thing happened today,” my mom said kind of sheepishly as she slid two Swanson’s turkey TV dinners into the oven for us. My dad was at his night job as a display manager at Weinstock’s Department Store and I was practically sweating over the algebra problems in front of me at the kitchen table.
“What?” I asked, not even looking up at her.
“The people from the employment agency offered me a job at the agency instead of some other location. They said I was a perfect match to help other people get jobs.” By this time she was sitting across from me at the table, but I was still madly flipping through my textbook to the back pages where the answers to the odd-numbered problems were listed. Although our teacher told us those were only there to check our work, my theory was: if you were as bad at algebra as I was, those answers could be your anchor. If I knew an answer, I could work toward that, instead of fooling around with all those variables and unknowns and sets and subsets and coming up with something that may or may not be correct.
I could feel my mother staring at me, so I finally put down my dull pencil and made eye contact. “Well, at least you got a job quickly,” I said, figuring this was a fairly supportive thing to say. I could tell she was thinking about something else by this time when she didn’t answer. She got up and left the room. I followed her a few minutes later and found her standing in front of her closet staring at her clothes.
“I’m worried that I may not have the wardrobe for this job,” she said, but it was clear she wasn’t really talking to me. Later that evening, when my dad had returned from his job, I heard her telling him about the employment agency and her plans to buy a few new outfits once she got comfortable in the job. She started work the following Monday and was in an unusually great mood when she headed out the door. Her disposition was decidedly different when she called me after school to say she had stopped at Dolores’, her hairdresser, to get her hair done. “I really need to fit in at this job,” she said quietly, apparently not wanting Dolores, or any of the other customers and hair stylists, to hear.
When she walked in the door a few hours later, in place of my always gray-haired mom was a barely recognizable blonde. She was beaming, but in a way that seemed painful more than happy. “Sit down,” she said. “I need to tell you one thing about this job that may be a little surprising.” You mean other than the blonde hair? I thought to myself.
She lit a Kool and leaned back on the couch, her blonde hair curling around her forehead. “The thing is,” she said, biting her lip, “when you call me at work, you need to ask for Tracy Lee, not Margaret McReynolds. We all go by younger, cuter names there.”
“What?” I asked, scrunching my face at both the ridiculousness of the name and the fact that she thinks this is a good idea. Now my suddenly blonde mom was Tracy Lee. Too much for one evening.
I did ask for Tracy Lee when I called her the next day and the day after that. On Friday of that week, she was quiet all evening. Finally, she told me to get my shoes on and said we were going for a drive. It seemed like the wrong season to drive through the wealthy people’s neighborhoods, but I was intrigued. Instead, we drove to Fulton Avenue, then to a small strip mall with non-descript offices. When she stopped when and got out of the car, Isaw the words “Employment Agency” on a door. I watched her take an envelope out of her purse and slip it into the mail drop.
When she got back into the Ford Fairlane 500, she turned the key and looked at herself in the rear view mirror. “I just quit my job,” she said, not really glancing my way. “But I’m keeping the hair.”
GINNY McREYNOLDS is an essayist from California. She is retired from a long career as a community college English, journalism and speech professor. She writes about growing up in the 1950s and 60s, as well as issues of reinvention and creativity. Her work has appeared in Next Avenue, Sixty and Me, Next Tribe, and The Washington Post, as well as in her weekly blog, Finally Time for This: A Beginner’s Guide to the Second Act of Life. She received her MFA from the Goucher College Creative Nonfiction program.