• Alexis Soul-Gray

I hugged her all night like a teddy bear

It is 2.13 am and I cannot sleep tonight for some reason. I am aware that after arriving back from London just before my children’s bedtime today (yesterday) I forgot to unpack the car, perhaps this is why I cannot rest. In my bag locked inside the car is a small velvet box containing a lock of my mother’s hair. I could go downstairs and unlock the front door and retrieve the box in the hope that it may help me sleep but my incredibly bright/wonderful/troubled at times...very intense and special youngest daughter is asleep next to me, wrapped up in her new weighted blanket in the hope it may help her sleep! If I move she will wake up, every time. On Thursday I visited my friend Jane in crouch end who is an incredible artist and friend... her home is the Jane Wildgoose Memorial Library. She was a close friend of my mother’s having taught together in art schools for years across the uk. Mum cut a lock of her hair the morning of her death in a hotel room in Zurich. I felt I couldn’t look after it as my life fell into chaos the moment our plane arrived back in London and had given it to Jane for safe keeping at the memorial library. Almost 14 years later and I suddenly felt it was time to collect it. We got the box out, it was in a 1920s doctors bag, surrounded inside by part of her mourning jewellery collection. In 2007 Jane bought me a Victorian ring at Portobello market, it was a large opal surrounded by diamonds, I loved it. We chose this ring because it had space for hair to be placed inside it at the back. I decided I couldn’t put the hair in the ring yet, that it would be safer with Jane in the library. In 2011 the ring was stolen along with another ring my mum had taken off her finger and passed to me the day she died. It was upsetting that they were stolen, but I remember just being overwhelmingly relieved that her hair was safe, not inside the stolen ring. I didn’t know how I would respond seeing her hair again... my first response was that it looked like baby hair, I have kept hair from both my children and it just looked exactly like that... fresh, no decay. My second feeling was that I wanted to smell it, maybe eat it, I didn’t..but held it to my mouth for a while. I had decided to leave the hair with Jane but asked her if I might keep the box next to me while I slept at her house that night. Just as I turned the lights off I reached for the box and held it tightly to my heart and hugged it like a teddy bear all night. The comfort I felt was very surprising to me and the following morning I informed Jane I would take her (hair) with me after all. The next night I held it In my hand, the third she sat by my pillow. Tonight she is locked in the car! Perhaps this is why I cannot sleep, I don’t know. It Is now 2.45 am and my youngest daughter is laying her body on top of mine, it is so uncomfortable I can barely type... weighted blanket clearly useless. Jane and I have spoken about plans we have for the lock of hair, but this will be another day, another blog post. This is an extract Jane wrote a while ago about her experience of this lock of hair, it was part of her PHD thesis but didnt make the final work due to the research slightly moving in a different direction... very pleased she wanted me to quote it in this post, thankyou Jane x When my dear friend and colleague S– was dying in 2006 she gave a lock of her hair to each of her three grown-up children. Her daughter A– asked me to look after hers, and my understanding was that it was just too potent at the time for her to have it in her keeping. At S–’s memorial service I suggested to A– that I might buy her a piece of jewellery in which to keep S–’s hair – an offer she readily accepted. We went to Portobello Road together where we explained to each stall-holder we met what we were looking for. I was impressed and surprised to learn just how much Victorian jewellery – including many items that seemed not to be specifically for mourning – had tiny, concealed containers for hair, quite apart from the numerous examples that featured actual hairwork in their design. We finally chose a ring that gave no hint of being for mourning, which nonetheless had a small receptacle at the back designed to take hair.

That was about seven years ago. I still have S—‘s’s hair, here at The Wildgoose Memorial Library, in a little velvet box. At the time of writing, A– has not claimed it. Certainly not, I think, from neglect, but rather from the same sense of its peculiar potency that it certainly exerts on me. I have thought about this often as I have been working with the history of hairwork over the past year – familiarizing myself with the extensive online catalogues of hairwork at the British Museum, the V&A, the National Maritime Museum, and many other collections in London that hold examples dating from the 17th to 19th centuries; when gazing in wonder online at hundreds of wreaths made in the 19th century from the hair of whole families in America, and gradually increasing my own collection of cut hair dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and hairwork jewellery at The Wildgoose Memorial Library - the last of which have become part of the handling collection I take to events when I am asked to speak and show material from my collection. On these occasions I never take S–’s hair with me. I have never opened the box and looked at it again since A– and I first put it there, soon after S– died. I have thought about this, and wondered why it seems so difficult to look at it or touch it. Much as I would like to, I’m not sure that I can explain. But I can say that those tiny strands remain – so apparently ephemeral and yet so enduring - somehow too intimate, and too powerful a reminder of the great sense of pain, anger and loss that I still feel, occasioned by the death of someone I admired, respected and loved who left this world, it seemed to me, far too soon. Too powerful to touch, to look at, and to see: this palpable evidence of the body that once lived and breathed among us, and now is gone, save for this one tiny, apparently fragile, yet immutable fragment. Jane Wildgoose, 2013

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