My maternal grandmother, Shirley Amtmann, was born in 1934 in Ridgefield near Fort Lee in New Jersey, as a twin. The family was very poor, and as a child my future grandma suffered many deprivations.
Both my grandma and her sister were very beautiful, but also had big personalities, which sometimes made it difficult to fit into society’s expectations. It seemed like they were born in the wrong time. They had their dreams and ambitions, but eventually had to compromise almost everything because of social standards.
My grandmother met my future grandfather in a bar that belonged to her uncle. At that time, she was already engaged to someone else and because of this she planned to set my future grandfather up with another girl. He, however, liked Shirley from the moment he met her, and when they were on their way to New York City to meet this other girl, he suddenly started to sing to Shirley in the car. As she told me herself, at that moment she slipped off her ring and let herself fall in love with him.
They are in their eighties now and still remain together. Their marriage, however, has never been an easy one. Both my grandmother and grandfather were hairstylists, but it was my grandmother who had professional aspirations. For example, she always wanted to open her own salon. Nevertheless, my grandfather, who made most of the financial decisions in the family never let her. One day I asked him how he could keep disappointing her like that. He answered that he was afraid of her leaving him. Keeping her financially dependent was his way to control Shirley.
My grandparents had three children together, but possibly because their marriage was so unsound, their kids, including my mom Linda, grew up to be dysfunctional adults who were never able to create happy families for themselves. I love my grandmother very much, but I told her openly that maybe she should have never had children.
Nevertheless, my grandma is the person from who I received the most support in the family. I lived with my grandparents from some time when I was a child, and these years harbor my best memories. Unlike my mom, my grandma always embraced me eccentric side and encouraged my artistic interests. She drove me to art classes, took me to work with her, and sometimes we did each other’s hair in her basement.
I followed her footsteps, and now I am also a hairstylist, however I learned from her mistakes and cherish my independence. I know how lucky I am to live in a society that does not judge me for not following the conventional path. Paradoxically, my grandma, who was forced to sacrifice so much for marriage, sometimes nags me about staying single. When from time to time I get annoyed at her for this, I realize that it all comes from a place of love. From her own experience, she knows that life can be hard and wants to protect me.
At 84, my grandma is still active and keeps moving. She still works as a hairstylist, doing hair at the local nursing home. Many of her clients cannot believe her age.
The photograph I am holding was probably taken at my mom’s wedding. When my grandma was fighting with my grandpa, she used to cut her hair. Her pixie haircut is tale telling.