I am a red-head. A ginger, a leprechaun, a fire-top, a carrot-top, Agent Orange, a blue (for my friends down-under), Red Riding Head, Opie, Sunny Delight, the Red Baron, and, of course, Freckle Fart from K-Mart. Since I was old enough to notice other people’s hair, I wanted to have, well, other people’s hair. I dislike the color of my hair, the complexion (or lack thereof) that goes with it, and its unmanageably tangly, curly, wavy nature. The last part isn’t necessarily true of all red hair, just mine in particular.
The thing is, as a ginger, there are fewer options for looking good, going out, or just feeling normal. The names heaped upon me as a kid — and the list above just has the ones I can remember; it’s far from comprehensive — were enough to make me self-conscious about it, and to desperately want to dye my hair (a request met by indisputable “NOs” by my parents). In retrospect, I realize that dying my hair would have been an incomplete solution, as it only would have made my already fair skin assume the pallor of an extra in a George Romero film. The freckly, pasty skin which invariably accompanies red hair challenges the wardrobe and essentially makes certain colors permanently off-limits. Oranges and some reds are basically off-limits lest you blind others with the garish assault of light from that end of the spectrum. It’d basically be like looking at a solar eclipse without a pinhole viewer. Give or take. Greens look great, but the inevitable comparisons to the Irish, and to leprechauns especially, make it a choice only for those who don’t mind some tedium in their lives. White can work to some extent, but depending on your complexion, you will either look more or less like an orangutan, and this can change from day to day for reasons still unknown to me.
That devilish sun is a red-head’s sworn enemy from birth. It shines down death and burning, even in the winter, even in the shade. Being born a ginger is being pre-destined to keep Coppertone in business all by your lonesome. Anything bearing an SPF less than 30 is a joke. 45 is better. 60 works pretty well, but takes somewhere between three and four days to completely work it into your skin, as it’s about as thick as caulk. And every ginger will discover, the hard way, what happens when you don’t use sunscreen. I have yet to meet another red-head who doesn’t have at least one story about a near-death encounter with summer. My own involved second-degree burns along my shoulders, complete with blisters that popped under my shirt and fused it with my skin. That was from being at the pool without sunscreen for about four hours. Some people tan very well. My dad’s skin would resemble a rich, buttery cowhide after a summer’s day. Me, I blacken like a fish on a skillet after I go outside to get the newspaper.*
Joshua dodged the red bullet completely. When he was born, his hair was dark as night, and his jaundiced skin was the only thing that closely resembled my orange hue. He looked more like an Arapaho than the son of a ginger. Jack… poor, Jack. What Joshua dodged smacked Jack square in the head. He was born with a head on fire, inviting the comment from my mom, “He’s like a little you!” As if this were a good thing!
His thin, burning tufts of hair necessitated putting away nearly a quarter of the clothes we had for him as they would only make him look like Clifford the Big Red Dog. Or a ghost. Or the ghost of Clifford the Big Red Dog. Babies are already sensitive to the sun, but as a red-headed baby, Jack doubles down on the prospect of a life-altering sunburn. So he gets covered up (sunscreen on super-young babies is frowned upon) and held in the skinniest slivers of shadows while outdoors. Even then, inevitably, you can almost watch his skin start to transition from pasty white to shrimpy pink in minutes.
What’s funniest to me, and at times the most head-smackingly frustrating, is that when I go out with him, his hair color is the go-to topic of conversation with complete strangers. “I see he’s got your red hair!” What is the appropriate response to this? I’m sure it’s supposed to be somewhere between, “Congratulations on not being color-blind!” and “Why the hell are you talking to me?” I haven’t found that balance yet. I know it’s supposed to be a conversation-starter, but it’s more of a conversation-ender. There isn’t a response other than, “Yes,” and “Yes” doesn’t exactly move a conversation along. In those rare moments when I’m feeling chatty with my fellow man (about as rare as the aforementioned solar eclipse), I’ll note that Jack’s brother does not have red hair, but this only really works if Joshua isn’t with us. Otherwise, I’m inviting the same kind of conversation-ending statement of fact. But at least the conversation is over.**
Jack will someday experience all these things for himself. He’ll get called names, be asked the location of his pot of gold, burn like he slept on a griddle, and wear an outfit that on anyone else would look great, but on him looks like Smokey the Bear ought to be coming along any second to put him out. The frustrations of the ginger are many and various, myriad and sundry, and, ultimately inescapable. So, Jack, I apologize again for your unfortunate roll of the genetic dice. Buy stock in Coppertone.
*Yes, we subscribe to a newspaper. We’re, like, a thousand years old. It’s ok; we just read it for the articles.
**Please, dear God, let my children be better conversationalists than me.