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Gray-and-black hair

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My grandmother, Janet Stern, died on Jan. 30, exactly one week after celebrating her 100th birthday. In this culture, we tend to overlook the true meaning of such milestones. These days, our most vibrant connections seem to be electronic, and the lack of respect for wisdom and experience is everywhere in evidence.

Grandma was wise to the end. At her birthday party at her Florida nursing home, she recited a poem remembered from a card received long ago: "Life owes me nothing. One clear morn is boon enough for being born." I'm grateful she felt that way.

She was born at the start of the 20th century and experienced the best and worst it had to offer. She played her part as a flapper feminist, worker, mother, Army officer's wife, League of Women Voters member and family matriarch. I think I felt the moment of her passing as I sat on the couch patching a pair of jeans. Something about the way the needle went in and out of the cloth--like breath--caught at my heart. And I remembered an essay I'd written for a Grandparent's Day event at the nursing home four years ago that describes my grandma's singular take on existence. I'm sure she wouldn't mind my sharing it here:

For most of my life, my grandmother had what I once referred to in a saucy, toddler moment as "gray-and-black hair." It was wavy and dark, with silver strands that caught the light like tiny mirrors. As I grew older, the color moved more solidly into the silver column, the black strands increasingly rare. But even now that it's gone completely silver, grandma's hair hasn't lost its eye-catching power. It sits atop her head like a wavy crown. When she runs her fingers through it, it springs immediately back into glittering shape. Hairdressers always comment on grandma's hair; how easy it is to cut and how thick the waves are. As my mom says, "Everyone notices grandma's hair. It's one of her best features."

More than merely an aspect of her appearance, grandma's hair is like a net that's caught all the amazing vitality of her personality. It's the hair of a great hostess; of someone who can tell a joke and recite a poem; of a woman who always seems to know exactly what's going on. I think of grandma's hair as the outward sign of her inner strengths--her keen perceptions about the world, her bulls-eye judge of character, and the ready mix of compassion and toughness that has shaped her approach to living.

Family lore has it that I first took note of grandma's hair when I was 3 or maybe 4. She'd asked me to do something I didn't want to do and in a flash of small-person anger, I retorted, "Well, anyway. At least I don't have gray-and-black hair!" I think I knew even then that grandma's hair was something special. And as I lobbed the worst insult I could think of at her, she showed me what she was made of: She laughed.

Thanks for laughing, grandma, and for telling me that story with joy so many times over the years. I love you very much (and you do have very lovely hair).

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