My sister, Alice was the most darling, little girl with a head full of red ringlet curls and creamy skin dotted with freckles. As little girls go, she was spectacular and in the age of Shirley Temple she met all criteria for cuteness! Wherever we went, folks would stop and comment about her adorableness. I remember boarding the Decatur Street bus one day in Brooklyn. The driver of the bus stopped everything to carry on with his passengers about this “Little Red” with the head full of ringlets. My crazy mother loved the attention. I, on the other hand, always felt like the gawky, skinny, plain, straight-brown-haired sister on stand by. I simply got none of the attention or glory yet, I loved Alice so much that it was almost okay for I too, enjoyed the spectacle of her!
My grandmother lived at 10 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. It was one of the more posh, Brooklyn neighborhoods and she lived in a formal and desirable pre-war building right across from Prospect Park and the lake. Most of the residents of this fancy building were older Jews, and they spent the majority of their time sitting in lawn chairs in the front of the building, kibitzing about all that was right and wrong with the world. Having these Irish Catholic granddaughters had to be material for fodder, but we never really heard about it and the flaming red hair that Alice brought into the picture, really sealed the deal.
Mr and Mrs. Halem were amongst my favorites because they always pinched our cheeks and carried on about our sweetness. Mrs. Halem sported a pair of classic piano legs that slanted outwards. I was always afraid that her legs would just completely bow out and leave her flat on the ground. She wore these huge, clunky black shoes referred to as “Old Lady Shoes” at the time and she groaned, “Oy” a lot. Mr. Halem had the most wretched, wet, crackly cough and his habitual throat clearing could really be sickening. To make matters worse, he had been a Kosher butcher and had chopped off one of his fingers which left just a stub, which always grabbed my eye and fascination. However, he was madly in love with my little sister to the point where he would stop dead in his tracks every time he laid eyes on her and say, “Hey Red, a nickel for a ‘coil’! Look at all those ‘coils.” Lemme have just one for a nickel, eh?” We would all laugh and feel a little scared that he might actually abscond with one of those curls of Alice’s.
So, the irony of ironies here is that yesterday, Alice shaved her head and all but the very least of her red hair remains. She has officially crossed over into wig wearing territory and is donning a wig that really looks great on her and is a lovely strawberry-ish color. Yes, she is yet another woman with breast cancer and has just begun the journey of chemo, surgery, and radiation. Her trademark for all these years, into her mid-fifties has been “Hey Red!” so this is particularly poignant and emotional for her.
In many ways, we look alike or have similar features, though she is more fair with the curly red hair and blue eyes, and I always donned the straight dark hair with green eyes. So, seeing her with a shaved head makes me see myself in the same light. My hair is not special, it is not my main or best feature and I am not sure I even have one. It is an odd and entangled emotional experience beginning this breast cancer journey with my sister. I wish we lived physically closer than the two hours there is between us. And, I wish that she wanted me around her more, but I am trying hard to respect her boundaries and her wishes, hard as it seems to be for me.
One day when this wretched journey is over for her and she has recovered, I know her hair will begin to grow back. One never knows just how thick, or curly, or straight, or red, or white the hair will be, but Alice, will always be Alice and perhaps, she will always be, “Hey Red!”