Alaska Life

Everything I needed in my hairdresser’s chair

Ed had a verse from Proverbs tattooed on his arm.

My dad and stepmom threw a St. Patrick’s Day party a couple weeks ago and half the neighborhood showed up. I found Jack Roderick, who lives across the street from them, at the kitchen table with a plate of corned beef. Jack was once the borough mayor of Anchorage, back when we had both city and borough governments. It was his 93rd birthday. I asked what he was up to.

You know how, when you live in the town where you grew up, there’s this cast of characters you have been floating along with forever? They aren’t part of your inner circle, but you just know them and they know you. There’s a kind of intimacy that comes with time passed together, showing up in all the same places. Anyway, that day, Jack was my oracle.

“Staying alive mostly,” he told me, in answer to my question. “We’re all going to die, but you always think, ‘Oh no, not me.’”

I laughed, but it was one of those comments that leads your mind down a path. Driving home, I kept thinking about this haircut appointment I’d been to earlier in the week.

Geneva is the kind of hairdresser who is as valuable to the world as a doctor or a priest. She always knows what to do. I joke that she’s my primary-care provider.

She also knows everybody. I’ve found myself, hair slicked up with color, sitting next to a detective, a surgeon, a pot entrepreneur, a model, an oil executive, a professional athlete, numerous musicians and a chef. I’ve overheard people telling her about bad dates and cheating husbands, estranged children and dying parents. Last time I was in, it was her son, who is 13, getting his hair dyed white while I was getting my roots dyed not white. In the third chair was her mother’s friend from back in Geneva’s growing-up days, the Chugiak trailer days.

Geneva has been doing my hair since I shaved my head freshman year of college 20 years ago. She did my hair on my wedding day. A decade later, when my marriage ended, she took one look at my hollowed-out face, got on the phone and ordered a halibut sandwich. Then she fed it to me and gave me the best haircut of my life.

Last time I was in, Geneva padded around, shaking a bottle of color. Her black hair was swept into a bouffant, her eyelashes were thick like a Disney princess, her lipstick bold and precise. I said something about work, but she wasn’t listening.

“I’m going to throw the most amazing birthday party ever,” she said.

Then she started fanning herself. Hot flash. She’s in her mid-40s. It’s early menopause. A surgeon removed a tumor on Christmas Eve and it was cancer. She had to get a hysterectomy. The cancer has a 50-50 chance of coming back. If it does, there’s no treatment.

“I’m going to have a band,” she said.

And all her friends are flying in. There will be the best food. She and her husband will renew their vows. She has three kids.

They got married on post, she told me. There were probably 250 people, but somehow they only spent $3,000 because everybody helped out. She grew up Mormon and her family is huge. Aunts and uncles made hams and turkeys and saved coupons for Michael’s to get half-off on decorations.

“My mom was up at night sewing the beads on my dress,” she said.

“You have got to be one of the most loved people I know,” I said.

“I have the best friends,” she said.

About then, Ed, who works in the salon, took me back to wash my hair. Ed is a gorgeous man, built like one of Beyonce’s backup dancers. He has a twin brother and his dad was a preacher. There’s a verse from Proverbs tattooed on his forearm. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” I teared up when he was rinsing me.

“You can’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Nobody knows.”

Some of us get a long time and others don’t. Life can feel like a series of mundane episodes starring yourself and the characters you’re floating along with, science fair projects and grocery store aisles, weddings, dishes, birthday parties, haircuts. You can stare at your phone or you can chase your kids around the yard, but today is your allotment. It’s what you get. You can’t know what’s going to happen. It matters how you love people.

My hair was wet. Geneva stood behind me in the chair, looking at me in the mirror the way she had 100 times.

“I’m just going to say yes to everything,” she said. “You got to soak up all the joy, you know?"

At the height of my parents’ St. Patrick’s Day party, every chair and couch was occupied, people sat on the stairs and the hearth and leaned on the counter. Kids wove in and out, mouths green from shamrock cookies. You couldn’t hear the Irish music anymore because of all the talking.

Pretty soon, word got around and the whole room turned toward Jack. We started in on “Happy Birthday,” a booming chorus you could probably hear from the street. My stepmom carried a cake through the crowd and set it down in front of him and his face filled with the light of the candles.

Julia O'Malley

Anchorage-based Julia O'Malley is a former ADN reporter, columnist and editor. She received a James Beard national food writing award in 2018, and a collection of her work, "The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska," was published in 2019. She's currently writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum.