Yesterday's Magazette

8 – Mom’s Gray Hair

Mom’s Gray Hair


By Sheron Donahue

Upon my arrival in that Midwestern town in Illinois, I joined a family with two other girls, 10 and 15 years older than I. Believe it or not, before I swooped into my parents’ lives, gray hairs had already sprouted on Mom’s head, which I mostly attribute to my ten-year-older sister, Norma.

For example, in those days water heaters were small. To draw hot water for a bath, the pilot light was lit shortly before each bath, which barely tempered the ice cold water. Mom and Dad sat in the living room when Norma, then five, took it upon herself to light a match and heat the water. Hah! I was only three when I lit my first match.

She turned the knob and, after several tries, she finally succeeded in getting the wooden match to glow. But, as she leaned down to ignite the gas—Kaboom!  Mom heard the noise and her daughter’s screams and raced to the kitchen. The gas exploded in Sis’s face, leaving it red and raw for quite awhile, and even singed off her eyebrows. Enter Mom’s gray hairs #46 through #49 and, obviously, not from yours truly.

Standing by the backyard shed, Norma picked at the rusted hinges while her older sister, Roi Jane, played inside the dilapidated building. Dad blew the whistle for the girls to come to supper, and Roi flew out of the shed. Norma let out an agonizing cry, and Mom came running. Sis’s fingers had gotten jammed in the crevice and were totally crushed, so her parents rushed her to the hospital. Voila! Gray hairs #50 through #55. Fortunately, my sister escaped with no broken bones.

She probably didn’t cause any of Mom’s gray hairs with this one, but the imp in me just has to tell. When I came along, Norma was ten. At school, the nun patted her on the back and said how nice for her that she had a new baby sister. Norma muttered under her breath, “No, it’s not nice. I’m the baby of this family. I don’t want no bratty, bawling little sister.” She likely thought this for years, since she often got stuck chasing after me.

I hate to admit this, but my sister could have been dubbed a Robin Hood of her day.  On a muggy August afternoon, she left the playground and took a shortcut home along the railroad tracks. As she passed lush vegetable gardens, she couldn’t resist and ran over and plucked a few tomatoes from one yard, and then pulled carrots and grabbed corn from others. I imagine, since she was little and carried such a small bundle, no one minded or, at least, felt it wasn’t worth the effort to chase after her with a billy club. At first Mom’s face showed furrows, but then brightened into a smile. Although Sis had snatched vegetables from rich families, she offered them to her own poorer one, for which Mom was grateful. That night, they blissfully feasted on her bountiful gifts, ignoring their bare cupboards.

We both suffered from nightmares, though mine was always of flowing lava roaring down a hill, which startled me from a sound sleep. Hers were often of hunting for something lost—her music, a purse, or she couldn’t find her way home. She says now that the searching likely related to the absence of her biological father, even though she was only one when he took off. On a stroll home from school, she saw the back of a man’s head that looked familiar, so she ran up to him and asked, “Are you my daddy?” His startled look made her wonder why she did such a dumb thing—her words, not mine.

Yet she’s quite adamant about my dad being her dad. After all, Dad entered her life when she was so tiny. In fact, just recently when she visited the doctor, he asked her how her mother and father died. Without hesitation, she said, “Dad died from cirrhosis of the liver.” It wasn’t until she got home, flipped on the TV, and settled in her easy chair that it dawned on her; she told the physician about the one who raised her, not her biological father.

She and her older sister, Roi Jane, both contributed to Mom’s gray hairs when they jumped up and down on the bed and bombarded each other with pillows. Feathers flew when this wormy kid, Norma, fell against the wall and smashed right through, landing on the living room floor of the adjacent tenant. Imagine my sister’s surprise, not to mention Mom’s…well, you know. Come to find out, it wasn’t a wall at all. To stuff his wallet, the landlord had put up a thin partition making one unit into two.

When Sis came home early from grade school one day, she found the door locked. Since she had no key, she pounded frantically and yelled, “Let me in. Let me in.”  When no one answered, she got scared and banged on the window. The glass shattered into a thousand pieces; blood gushed from her hand. Mother was next door and when she heard the screams, she ran to her daughter’s side. I’ll not mention the number of gray hairs here.

Norma was born during the Crash of 1929. She says they were poorer then than when I grew up. One summer, she picked flowers at a vacant house that was surrounded by pillared two-story homes with lush trees and bushes neatly manicured. Then, she knocked on doors selling the bouquets for 5¢ a bunch. When she emptied her pockets on the kitchen table, the coins jangled like joyful bells honoring her contribution to their meager household.

Okay, enough of the little angel’s stories. The fact is, to this day, Norma isn’t fond of housework, but who is? She and her sister were responsible for most of the upkeep because both parents worked. When she was little, she got into trouble time and time again for not washing the dishes properly. On Saturdays, Dad went through the cupboards and inspected each cup and plate. If he found a scrap of food on just one, he insisted the girls redo all of them. Roi Jane nagged and scolded her younger sister’s neglect the whole time they rewashed and dried each and every piece.

Her favorite name for me was “Little Bugger.” Norma said she always had to lie down with me at my nap time. If she didn’t, she said, “The little bugger will be up in a flash and get into all sorts of trouble.” That may be true, but …

On other occasions, she had no mercy for her little sister. She’d tickle my underarms, the back of my neck, bottoms of my feet, and anywhere in between. It didn’t matter where, I’d laugh so hard, I couldn’t catch my breath, sounding like a pig honking as I gasped for air and hollered for her to stop. But she kept it up until I thought I’d expire. All she had to do was come at me with those long fingers wiggling, which I still remember well, and I’d head for the hills or closet or wherever else I could escape her twitching fingers. Believe this, I got so tickled out as a child that now I’m just plain numb.

Like birds of a feather, Norma also ran away from home, but she was three. My great escape didn’t come about until I turned five. Another similarity is that when she was found, she had stripped along the way and stood in the road plumb-naked. After that, Dad tethered her to a tree, so she couldn’t wander off. My sister and I may be birds of a feather, but if I’d been around at the time, this tenacious baby sister would have taught her how to untie the dang rope.

Note: Written from conversations with my sister, Norma, whom I love dearly.

*This is a chapter in Sheron’s unpublished book. Her articles have appeared in Cappers, Nostalgia, Working Writer, Writers Weekly, The Perspiring Writer, Yesterdays Magazette. under pen Sherry Lynn. Also: Complete Woman, Chicago Connections, Contact, Singles, Woman, P.W.P. Single Parent, Solo, Real Estate Today & Coldwell Banker Regional. She blogs at

Vol. 38 No. 1 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Spring- 2011


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