by Ivy Berchuck


“You’ll never find such soft, elegant material if you don’t shop now.  Come on, be nosier. You won’t be sorry.”

I’m stretched out on a mesh lounge chair in the courtyard of my daughter’s Manhattan apartment. Sunlight plays through the trees, defying the urban noise. The proud looking bird gives me the once over but doesn’t move closer.

“You won’t be sorry,” I cajole. “I know that summer isn’t the season for avian interior decorating, but consider what your nest will look and feel like next spring when the new chicks arrive.”

Years of Audubon magazines have convinced me that wife and hubby will return after the winter break to make home improvements to the very same nest. We humans would call this proactive, thinking ahead, but I don’t know how it works in the bird world.

I continue, unconcerned about the people reading around me. I coax some more: “You’ll never find such soft, elegant nesting material if you don’t shop now.”

I am five weeks into bad news. A cancer diagnosis and a regimen of chemotherapy have me in an unbelieving stupor. I hang onto some words–early, few malignant cells, shrinkage hoped for.  I’ve had few bad reactions to the chemo, mostly fatigue, which is bitter for an active person.  Now this new side effect has clicked in.  I reach under my gigantic sun hat and gently pull at my curls.  Out comes a handful of hair.  If I roll it around it becomes a ball, like something an owl would regurgitate.  If I separate the strands some float away in the breeze, others land in spots near my chair.  These are the strands I’m advertising to the robin.

I sprinkle some of my biscotti crumbs as incentive.  They attract her but not the soft blond hair.  The pulling is like nail biting.  I can’t stop, but unlike the robin I am proactive.

Last week, with my hair still intact, I visited a fancy wig shoppe.  I brought along some photos of how I look when I have my hair blown out to celebrate an event. I asked for advice. “What do you recommend, curls or straight?”

“I say we stick with your own color and go for the straight look. You’ll never have a bad hair day.”

We try on a numbers of styles. She’s right about the curly one.  I look like Harpo Marx and that makes me laugh, but the ones I do select look just like me, only better.  Wow, I think, a silly silver lining to this awful summer.  I buy two frames to stand the wigs on but draw the line at spending twenty dollars for the wig hairbrush.


The time for a test run arrives.  I’m off to spend the weekend with my youngest daughter and her family at their beach house in Greenport.  The wig is a big hit with the grandkids.  I love that the humidity doesn’t transform the straightness into corkscrew curls.  Elizabeth is packing to go back to MIT for her junior year.  I tell her about my wig shopping and the outrageous hairbrush price.

“Gram,” she exclaims. “I can help.”  At this she starts to hurl things from her closet. A bikini top and a soccer ball swish across the floor.  My protests are ignored.  Finally she reaches what she’s looking for. She pulls out a disheveled looking American Girl Doll with stringy, knotted hair. Taped to the doll’s arm is a four inch hairbrush emblazoned with American Doll across it.

“I never really liked her that much,” says Elizabeth “and I never took care of her hair. But you’ll take care of yours Grandma, and you’ll always look perfect.”  I’m probably the only chemo-wig-wearing grandmother using an American Girl Doll hair brush.


The effects of the chemo have become worse. I remain optimistic and do feel that I’ll get over this. I want to make the most of the days I feel good, and at some point I’ll relive this year the way it should have been. But on that city afternoon it would’ve made me happy if mother robin had cushioned her nest with my hair. I kept floating out strands while she pecked around for more biscotti crumbs. I know that I’m impatient. I want to exercise control when so much control has been taken away from me.

A writer friend sent me a card I read every day. Her note ended with this: “I hope you’re keeping up and looking forward to your lovely curly locks coming back with benevolent vengeance.”

Benevolent vengeance.  Don’t you just love it?  That is what I feel.  That is what is going to happen.


Before her retirement, Ivy Schiff Berchuck was the director of  Gifted Education for District 28 of the N.Y.C. Board of Education.  A long-time member of the IRP, she died in 2016.