An edited version of this essay appeared in the March 1 issue of American Way Magazine. Here is the full version.
Carrot Top. Rusty. Ginger. Pippi Longstocking. Forehead smack.
“How original. I’ve never heard that one before,” I want to respond.
“Connect the dots with my freckles? That’s a clever idea!”
As a redhead, I’ve heard all the jokes and jeers.
The only tag that didn’t make me flinch was the pet name my grandfather coined. “How’s my Pretty Red?” I can still hear his gravely voice ask, employing the tender nickname he’d used for me all his life.
It was always my Pretty Red. I was always his.
I’m the sole redhead on a family tree of dark haired relatives, including a twin brother, and our roots sink four generations deep into American soil. Beyond that, the branches fade away, forgotten or unnoted. But because of my copper crown, I’m often asked where I come from and whether or not I’m Irish.
“I’m not sure,” is my normal response.
But on a recent trip to the Emerald Isle, I began to wonder if ancestral roots were the only connection to a rightful home land. Could the roots on my head tether me to the land too?
I grew up in Los Angeles where I felt there was an almost circus-freak fascination with my hair. Step right up folks and get your tickets to see The Bearded Lady; test your arm wrestling skills against The World’s Strongest Man; and don’t forget to feed a nickname to The Redhead before you go.
The authenticity of my hair color--- some say it’s strawberry blonde but I liken it to a nutmeg-cinnamon-ginger blend --- also provoked prolific questioning over the years, an inquiry my mother says started when I was weeks old and strangers frequently asked whether or not my locks were “natural.”
“Why would I dye a baby’s hair?” she told me was her frustrated response.
I spent my teens rubbing lemon onto my tresses to try and lighten them up, and in an attempt to obliterate my freckles, I slathered “Fade Out” cream on my face, hoping the dots, and the attention to them, would obey. Dating was hell, especially in Southern California where blondes were bombshells, brunettes were sultry, and redheads had “great personalities,” pretty much the kiss of death in courting jargon.
I remember during university, a friend set me up with her boyfriend’s roommate. On the night of the double date while we primped at her place, the guy left a message on the answering machine.
“I’m looking forward to meeting your friend. She’s cute right? Not some red-haired, freckle-faced girl. Ha ha ha...”
As a kid, when I came home from school and told my mom I thought I was ugly, she soothed me with verbal band-aids like ‘special” and ‘unique’. And it was my grandmother who loved to braid ribbons into my hair and point out the flecks of gold.
As I got older and wondered why boys didn’t look at me the same way they did my blonde and raven-haired friends, it was my grandfather’s advice that salved the sting of rejection.
“Pretty Red,” he said during one of our yearly visits. “You’ll spend your school years trying to fit in, and the rest of your life trying to stand out. Consider your hair a head start.”
Though he didn’t go to college, my grandfather was wise and had been doling out sage advice since I could remember.
When I was about nine years old, my mom drove my brother and me up to Pismo Beach to meet my grandparents for a long weekend. My grandfather wanted to teach me to fly a kite and at 7a.m. on a damp Saturday morning we trudged across the sand, my hand in his, to the shoreline. The rainbow colored wing was stretched over a balsa wood skeleton and tied off by white string that wound around a red plastic spool with two posts on either side, like bike handlebars. My grandfather laid the kite on the sand and slowly backed down the beach, letting out the line slowly. I kept step with him until we were about 20-feet away.
He began to run as he talked, jerking at the spool.
“Pretty red, flying a kite is a lot like life,” he said. “You need a some runway and some wind to get it going, and it can get a little tricky at times…”
The kite fluttered and lurched side to side and the fragile frame flexed against the air. I ran alongside my grandfather and when we heard the whoosh of the wind catch the colored fabric and lift it skyward, we stood together and watched.
“…but it’s up to us to make it soar.”
My grandfather steadied the kite then handed me the spool of string. When I took the two posts in my hands, the the wind dragged me a few inches across the sand.
The first time I went to Ireland was over thirty years later and once there, I wondered why I hadn’t visited decades before. Though still a minority, redheads are found in more concentration on the British Isles than anywhere else in the world, and I had read before my arrival that an estimated 10 percent of the population of Ireland has red hair. At social events back home, my red hair made me feel like a zebra at the horse farm, but in Ireland I could always count on three or more members of my homogeneous herd roaming about.
Being a redhead anywhere is a bit like being in a club whose secret handshake blazes atop our heads, and whenever I cross paths with another redhead there is an unspoken connection forged by recessive genes and shared experience. In Ireland, at times, that bond was a little stronger than expected.
At a pub in Belfast, I somehow ended up on dancing with a blue-eyed, auburn-haired girl about 10 years younger than I who wore a swingy pleated skirt and black Doc Martin boots. We hooked arms and carved figure eights around the dance floor, kicking our knees and feet willy-nilly. When the music ended, she put her speckled nose up to mine and kissed me on the lips. “I love Irish girls,” she said in her sexy brogue.
Too stunned to break the news that I was not, as far as I knew, Irish, I let her disappear into the bar’s crowded thicket, preferring to savor the souvenir of my first and only kiss as an Irish girl, with an Irish girl.
On a more recent trip, it was instant kinship Olive, whose ginger hair, fine features, and contagious spirit gave her the qualities of what I imagined were those of a quintessentially Irish literary heroine. I’d met her on the vast and historic Liss Ard Estate in the countryside near Skibberdeen, County Cork, and when I saw her at our communal dining table, I immediately planted myself next to her. She told me something I didn’t expect to hear.
“Even though redheads are more popular here in Ireland we were still made to feel different and awkward.”
Garfield, Marmalade Head, Freckles, Ginger Nut, and Carrot Top were all names that had been hurled her way.
I thought sure red hair would be less maligned in a land where the trait was imbedded in common Irish surnames such as Flannery, meaning descendent of the red warrior, and Flynn, meaning son of red-haired man. Someone took a photo of me with Olive, and when I viewed it later, I thought we looked like sisters and in a way we were, related by the roots on our heads.
As redheads do, Olive and I eventually moved on to discuss curious superstitions and lore linked to our kind.
“Ya know, some of my cousins were involved in building the Dunbrody replica ship moored in New Ross,” said Olive. “They told me they had heard stories that red-haired women should not be allowed near the ship when it takes her maiden voyage. Bad luck.”
Another woman told me that it’s considered bad luck if the first person to enter a home on New Year’s Day is a redhead.
And I was already well-versed on the depiction of redheads as witches and temptresses in art and literature.
Over the two weeks of my last visit to Ireland, I’d been quizzing redheads and non alike to see if I could turn up anything beyond the banal nicknames and associations with bad luck and hellfire and brimstone. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but in Ireland there’s a good chance you’ll find it, or at least have a late night epiphany, at the local pub.
Pubs are the epicenter and social glue of any Irish town, and certainly of tiny Port Magee, a crayola-colored fishing village on a rocky stretch of coast in the southwest of Ireland where I’d landed for a night. Its waterfront watering hole with beer sticky floors was packed with young and old, couples and singles that had gathered like members of an extended family for some good ‘craic’ (pronounced crack), the Gaelic word for fun used and lived liberally around the island. Whoops and backslaps greeted new arrivals, while local musicians sat on short wooden stools in the corner and jammed out traditional Irish tunes. I’d struck up a conversation with the fleshy-faced, red-bearded man next to me who swung pints of beer in the air and, along with the rest of the bar, belted out lyrics to cultural anthems I wished I knew the words to. During a lull, I acknowledged our shared ‘gingerness’ and asked him about the old wives’ tales he’s heard all his life about his red mane.
“Aye, don’t ya worry about dat,” he said tugging on the ends of my hair. “I always tell people that red is the color of lust and sensuality, of power, of candied apples and summer strawberries, of wine and of love. All things we enjoy and can’t resist.”
Forehead smack. I had really never heard that one before.
And I remembered the rest of the advice my grandfather had dispensed that day on Pismo Beach as I tussled with the wind.
“But the most important thing about kite flying and about life Pretty Red,” he’d said, clamping his hands atop mine and securing me to steady ground, “is just to hang on tight and it will get easier.”
His was the kind of advice that grew clearer with age and hindsight, and he was right.
The whole freckle-face, carrot-top thing works a little like the story of the ugly duckling. At a certain point in my mid to late 20s, I, like most redheads do, began to feel more like the swan. The splintered self-esteem of a taunted youth eventually transformed into thick protective plumes, billowed by confidence and teeth-grit determination. And eventually, as most redheads do, I learned to love my fiery hair and embrace the attention that came with it.
On my last day inIreland, a chatty taxi driver took me to the airport and at one point he looked at me in the rearview mirror.
“I can hear ya are American, but ya must have a little Irish in ya there, eh pretty red?”
There's something about the Irish lilt that makes my knees weak and eyes pinwheel, and it took away some of the sting from the beloved nickname I hadn't heard in a while.
My grandfather died the November before that trip to Ireland, and the last time we were together I sat with him on the couch holding his fragile hand; the same hand that had helped me fly a kite; the same hand that had led me down the aisle and entrusted his grand daughter to her new husband two decades later; the same hand I’ve always felt on the small of my back urging me forward and strengthening me when I stumbled.
“Well Pretty Red. It looks like I won’t make it until Thanksgiving,” he’d said.
But in Ireland, surrounded by a coterie of Carrot Tops, Marmalade Heads, and Ginger Nuts, I felt my grandfather near.
I felt his hand in mine again.
I felt like his Pretty Red.
A version of this essay appeared in the March 1 issue of American Way Magazine, the inflight publication of American Airlines.