I should preface this story with the fact that all of us are West Virginian’s – both sides of the family and for several centuries. My parent’s generation was the first to finish high school – at least I think they all did – and my generation was the first to finish college. Being from the Mountain State, we were mostly simple, honest and independent folks who were both hardheaded and hardworking. We were taught to care about family, and we generally enjoyed being with our relatives in all kinds of activities. We used to spend our weekends together and take our summer vacations with members of all three generations.
The story that I’m telling here is about my grandmother - my Dad's mother. She was born near the end of the nineteenth century and lived until the mid-1960s. From the time we were little children, my sister and I called her Mawmaw – Mawmaw V. to distinguish her from Mawmaw T., my mother’s mother.
Grandpaw and Mawmaw V. raised their children – four boys and two girls – to be honorable and loving people. I don’t remember Grandpa V. because he died a few months after I was born. After Grandpaw V. died, Mawmaw V. was left with two grown sons (one was my father), two young adults, and two school-age children. From the oldest to the youngest, her children spanned a quarter of a century. While Mawmaw didn’t have more than an elementary school education, she had a lot of common sense intelligence and more than a reasonable amount of spunk.
Mawmaw V. was known for her independence and never seemed to be without anything she wanted. She rented out rooms in her big house and bought and sold antiques and old furniture. Her house reflected her favorite pastime, filled to the brim with interesting and valuable things. She was also busy with other activities over the years including being for a time, a saleswoman at a local department store and even getting into local politics. Despite her many interests outside the home, she spent a lot of time on the “womanly arts”, including cooking, sewing, upholstering, crocheting and flower gardening. She did all these activities very well, and I never knew her to be other than happy and laughing.
Our Sunday afternoon family dinners were at her house, and many of her children and grandchildren took part. These were great memories for me. We ate huge quantities of food at these gatherings, much of which Mawmaw prepared, working many hours in her kitchen and beginning as early as Saturday noon. All the other women at these gatherings also brought main courses, side dishes, and desserts. After the meal, stomachs to the limit and with the plates cleared away to the kitchen, Mawmaw sat down at the piano. All the family members were expected to sing along to a collection of traditional hymns and romantic songs from the early part of the century. I, for one, liked this part of the afternoon, even more than the dinner, itself.
All this brings us back to the story of Mawmaw’s hairbrush and its importance to me over the years.
To start with, as a kid, I always liked to go up to Mawmaw’s bedroom when I visited her house. It was filled with ornate, old-fashioned bedroom furniture, and there were many little bottles of cologne and perfume on her vanity. Because I went to her bedroom many times, I knew about her hairbrush. It was an old-fashion boar’s bristle hairbrush with a varnished wooden handle. For me, the hairbrush was clearly a luxury item. I had read somewhere or been told by someone that this kind of hairbrush was almost indestructible, and that a woman could use the same one for decades. Although I knew that it wasn’t exactly good manners, I often picked up Mawmaw’s hairbrush and examined it. I even sometimes brushed my hair with it. I wished that I could have such a wonderful hairbrush.
Much to the sadness of the entire family, in her mid-seventies, Mawmaw finally slowed down. For the first time in her life, she had to accept help from family members when she struggled with cancer surgery and then had a series of strokes. I was away at college when she died and I didn’t get a chance to go to her funeral. When I returned home after some months, I had the chance to go to my grandmother’s house. The house was being cleaned for sale, and only the bare essentials were left. All the treasures were long gone. It was a particularly sad moment for me because I hadn’t been present when she died, and this was the time when I would say goodbye to Mawmaw.
As I did so many times when she was alive, I wandered up to her bedroom. The old-fashioned bedroom furniture was still there. I guess nobody wanted the heavy furniture that, as it would seem, had little or no sentimental or resale value. There were just a few items left on her vanity. The perfume and cologne bottles that remained were a sad, dusty collection and all the better things had been taken. But, there on the vanity, I found my grandmother’s hairbrush, the very same one that I had looked at lovingly on so many occasions. I picked it up and hid it under my shirt, with the handle end in my jeans. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t supposed to take anything from her room, but since I didn’t have any other inheritance… the hairbrush was going to be it.
When I got back home, I took the hairbrush out and examined it. It was really dirty, totally filled up with Mawmaw’s hair and scalp oil. No family member had cared enough to clean the brush in the months leading up to her death or even afterwards. I cried more than a few tears as I cleaned the hair from the brush and washed it with soap and water.
Back then, after her death, when I cleaned up my grandmother’s hairbrush, I felt a great sadness. To me, it was a sign that when she got old and sick, no family members helped her keep her personal things tidy. It would seem that it just wasn’t of so much importance to them. They did other things for her – like cooking meals, looking after her house, and taking her out for short outings as a way of keeping her entertained. She was dressed, sitting up in her chair and ready to go shopping with my aunt when she had her final stroke.
I used Mawmaw’s hairbrush for many years thereafter, until all the varnish was gone and most of the boar bristle had fallen out. And all that time, I felt, indeed, that I had received a valuable inheritance from my grandmother. I never had another luxury hairbrush after that. I’m not even sure where I could find one as nice as my grandmother’s brush even if I was willing to pay for it.
I swore back then in college, that I would always try to keep my personal things, and particularly my hairbrush clean. I didn’t want to die suddenly or after some untimely illness and leave my dirty hairbrush for other people to clean up (or more than likely to throw out). Unfortunately, there were periods in my life when I didn’t keep my promise to myself, as I should have. I, too, had other important things to do – like college exams and later on, working full time, and being a wife and mother. Whenever I noticed my hairbrush or some other personal item being especially dirty, I would make another promise to myself: that if I ever reached retirement age - when supposedly one would have time to take care of personal things - I'd be sure to keep all my personal items clean, including especially my hairbrush.
Today, I’m retired and I do my best to keep my hairbrush clean. I still have good eyesight, at least when I use my glasses, and I can see when my brush is full of hair and oil. So, I know when it’s time to clean my brush.
As a footnote to this story - I hope that there will be somebody around me if (and when) I get old and frail, and that this person will help me to keep my personal things clean and tidy. But then, again, I won’t put any bets on it. There may be too many other things that are more important.