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Creative non-fiction essay writing

Date Released: Tue, 8 October 2013 12:58 +0200

Seven students from the JMS4 and Postgrad Diploma classes are reading and writing creative non-fiction this term with Writing Editing lecturer Gillian Rennie. A new topic every week brings a range of reading for the weekend and delivers seven diverse essays five days later – the best of which is published here. Unsurprisingly, the topic of hair elicited multiple responses. All of them were personal, most of them were emotional. This one, however, totally silenced the room.

Grey matter

By Kirsten Makin

Bronwyn died on the backseat of the car. It was 1988 and she was one year and one month old.

My mom was 24 when Bronwyn died. By the time she was 27 her hair was completely grey.

There were never any photos taken of my mom grey at 27. Well, if there were, I never got to see them. 

I read an article once on how stress can cause hair to turn grey. That it is not a myth after all. That stress causes the permanent migration of colour-giving stem cells from the hair to other parts of the body.

It is difficult to know at what point my mom started going grey, when her stem cells decided it was time to move on. It may have been the day Bronwyn was born or during the thirteen months my mom did not leave her side or maybe the day she died and every day after that.

Bronwyn was born in 1987. She was born with cerebral palsy. When my brothers and I were younger and didn’t understand terms like “birth trauma” and “cerebral palsy” I can recall my mom explaining that Bronwyn was too big to be delivered naturally and that the doctor had made a mistake, an oversight.

The first few days of Bronwyn’s life, days which called for celebration, were spent in hospital rooms and surgical wings as she suffered from uncontrolled seizures. At only a few weeks old Bronwyn underwent a brain biopsy to rule out any genetic disorders. She contracted meningitis from the surgery and then developed hydrocephalus which we knew as children as “water on the brain”. There was little that could be done to control the seizures so when it was finally time to take her home she was severely brain damaged and could not swallow. My mom would feed her through a tube.

Bronwyn fought on for 13 months.

Then one afternoon on the way home to Virginia, Bronwyn stopped breathing on the back seat of the red Nissan Sentra. My mom drove to the Parys Hospital. She handed Bronwyn to the nurses and asked that she not be resuscitated. Pulling on her little yellow hood over her dark brown curls my mom kissed her goodbye. She had died from pneumonia.

For over a year my mom was haunted by the fear that Bronwyn had not been warm enough.

The 22 years that I have known my mother she has been every colour imaginable. Ash blonde, silver blonde, black, plum and every red ever manufactured. When I was a child, and we lived in Phalaborwa, she was known as the zany lady. When we moved to Natal, customers came into my mom’s herbal centre and asked if that lady was my mom. When I offered confirmation they would assure me that they had met her before but could swear her hair was a different colour.  

A number of important markers in history are identified through the colour of my mom’s hair.

“Which year was Mandela released?”

“It was the year that Karen had black hair.”

A story told every year at Christmas lunch is the one about how she dyed the entire Colesberg hotel room black and how she and my dad spent a significant part of their holiday trying to get the stains out of the basin, the bath and the tiles.

During my early teens I recall being embarrassed by the brassy orange that my mom had recently adopted. I would beg her to change her hair colour. I would chastise her. I would inform her that other moms had natural-looking hair.

When I was 14 I found a bright violet wig in my mom’s cupboard. It was bob-shaped and I was horrified by it.

Yet my pleas did nothing to deter her. She continued to dye her hair and I continued to worry that she would fetch me from school in that purple wig.

Like most teenagers I was obsessed with appearances, interested in very little outside of myself and largely unaware of anything greater than my own expectations. It took me a while to come to understand why my mom continuously dyed her hair, and to accept it was something beyond her attempts to embarrass me.

Through this small act my mom was reclaiming – in the only way she knew how – what she had lost.

It has been nearly 26 years since Bronwyn died and my mom still dyes her hair. As she stands over the bath, running her fingers across her scalp, barely noticing the smell of ammonia anymore, Bronwyn is there, as the grey fades and when the sun catches the colour.

Photograph by Kirstin Makin



Source:Writing and Editing