A Sister’s Nurturing, in Countless Home Haircuts

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Sometimes when I run my palm over the back of my head, wondering if it’s time for a haircut, I feel my sister’s hand again, smoothing out my locks.

“How much?” she asks, voice resonant still.

“The usual.”

She reaches for the scissors.

“Not too short,” I remind her.

“I was going to whack it all off.”

We laugh. Judiciously she snips.

For 40 years Sherrell cut my hair. A television director by profession, she practiced the art of barbering for a clientele of one. The eldest of us four siblings — I’m the youngest — she directed me to take a stool in her kitchen as she draped a towel over my shoulders and kept me as shipshape, or shaggy, as desired.

No matter she was 15 years older. In addition to our devotion to our Alabama family, we shared our love of the water, the arts and the pulsing energy of New York City as our adopted home. We clearly shared DNA, Sherrell’s lush, wavy black hair going prematurely to silver, prefiguring my thick, curly black hair soon going that way.

And we loved to talk, chatting about our spouses and children, our work and vacations, my literary projects and the goings-on, behind the scenes, of “All My Children,” the popular soap opera she directed. As she trimmed me up, the leavings falling to the floor — it was my job to sweep them into a dust pan — I realized she moved in a world of glamorous hair, actresses paying handsomely for just the right coif. But Sherrell went natural, always.

As I hold up a mirror to see how she’s progressing, I see her own silver hair cascading to her shoulders, her eyes dark and empathetic, her presence strong and nurturing.

“Well, how’s it look?” she asks, removing the towel and shaking it out.

“Pretty good. Actually, just right.”

She smiles, a big sister happy to oblige.

I set down the mirror, then hold it up again.

She’s not there.


Touch can bring people back to us — my father giving me a bear hug, my mother rubbing her hand over my whiskery cheek, my grandfather bouncing me as a 2-year-old on his belly. For all the epic impact of loved ones on our lives, sometimes gestures as simple as a home haircut make them feel present again.

I’d know my sister in a half-second by the pressure of her hand on my scalp, turning me just a little, situating me to edge the hair off my collar. When not in the TV studio she was often with horses, riding as well as teaching students with special needs how to saddle up and guide a gentle mare around a ring. She had the gentle but firm, no-nonsense way of a woman used to brushing down big animals, currying manes.

She would have tended to our dad’s hair, too, I’m sure, neatening his corona of gray around the back of his bald pate — my hair came from our mom’s side of the family — but he was old-school, the barber shop his convivial, bi-weekly destination.

I started out in that tradition. As a kid in Mobile I’d ride my bike a half-dozen blocks to where Mr. Snow, in a window behind the red-and-white pole out front, groomed us boys in pompadours made slick with Vitalis. For those of us who “acted up,” he threatened to show us “a jar of ears” in the back. We sat stock still in his barber’s chair.

As a teen, in military school, I found whomever I could to keep me shorn. By then, in a divide between mop heads on the left and crew cuts on the right, the tonsorial had become cultural. In 1968, on a high school trip to visit Sherrell in New York, she guided me to the new Broadway musical “Hair.” I felt freedom in the lyrics: “Flow it / show it / Long as God can grow it / My hair.” Maybe my sister was grooming me politically, too.

Sherrell took over my barber duties not long after I turned 18 and I was at liberty to let it grow. I’d relax on her kitchen stool as she kept me from looking scraggly while I’d reflect on college, later my first job, and soon marriage. As she’d tidy me up I’d relish her stories about moving to New York in 1960 as a “career girl” instead of marrying young down South, her forays into the fledgling world of television, and her career path in a male domain, behind the camera, from variety and talk shows to daytime drama. “You were a feminist,” I’d say, looking at her in a photo with two dozen other crew members of “The David Frost Show,” from 1970. She was easy to spot, not only for her raven hair already brushed silver. She was the only woman on the production team. “I just wanted,” she responded, “to make my own way.”

Her progressive spirit moved me, and the way she last saw me — a child of the 1960s heading toward his 60s, gray curls spilling from under a sun visor — was a portrait she’d helped create. Hair was no longer as defining politically, but it still spoke to the tribe we identify with, be it aging white men with the grad school look, free spirits, no matter thinning and receding, unbowed by time. She embraced that.

When she lost her own gorgeous hair during cancer treatment she spoke of it little, insisting on turning the attention to everyone else. She kept right on tending us all, a big sister watching out for the young ones, no matter our age. When her locks grew back we were joyous. They symbolized far more.

There was recurrence. She was 70 when we lost her.

I didn’t want anybody else, ever, to touch my hair again.


Not long ago Sherrell was given a posthumous alumni award at her high school in Mobile, and I received the honor on her behalf. I spoke of her love of family and home, her television career, her blazing and tender spirit. A group of her girlfriends at the event, now grandmothers, reminisced to me how they’d eat lunch beneath the big oaks on campus, sharing secrets, dreams.

Afterward I walked beneath those oaks toward the parking lot, seeing Sherrell and friends in the flush of youth, bangs and ponytails shining, visiting in the dappled shade. Back in my car I glanced in the rearview mirror and caught an image of myself, soaked through with Deep South humidity. My hair looked wild.

“Time for a trim,” I heard her say.