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Observations

In Celebration of Fiery Locks

When old acquaintances ask what I’ve been “doing” since leaving an exciting newspaper career for home-based work and motherhood, I sometimes flash a snapshot of Lauren, Molly and Maclain.

“I’ve been doing my part,” I tell them, “to increase the world’s supply of redheads.”

Little did I know how important my life’s work would be.

Redheads, gingers, carrottops, copperheads—they’re all apparently going the way of the dinosaur. According to a report by the Oxford Hair Foundation, an “independent hair institute” in England, natural reds will fade from the population by the year 2100.

The reasoning: Only about 4 percent of the world’s population is blessed with the red hair gene. And it’s recessive, so it takes two parents with this special genetic marker—and a little bit of reproductive luck—to produce a red-haired child. As more red carriers cozy up to the dominant brown-hair gene, the possibilities for red sink further into the genetic melting pot.

And what an international tragedy that would be! The dire predictions from England made headlines all the way over on this side of the pond. My two younger redheads brought the bad news home, straight from their alert science teachers. The BBC recently aired a documentary called “The Ginger Gene” to explore this calamity.

Accurate or not, reports of red hair’s impending demise certainly are an excuse to celebrate this rare and wonderful human trait.

In her own soon-to-be published work, Redheads, flaming orange-headed author Anne Daniel, a professor of literature at The New School university in the Big (red) Apple, also writes about famous redheads and the popular stereotypes surrounding this hard-to-miss segment of the population. Daniel says her ginger epiphany came in a visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome’s Vatican City. In viewing Michelangelo’s famous ceiling frescoes, she was struck by the redheaded serpent tempting a mousy-haired Eve. But she was almost literally floored by the portion of this masterpiece depicting Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise.

“There she was (on her way out of Eden). … Eve is covering her face in shame, and her hair is the color of the serpent’s. … After the Fall, she is a redhead!”

Inspired to research, Daniel found that redheads (usually women) in art and literature are often portrayed as hot-tempered, lusty and stubborn in the face of authority. Redheaded men, conversely, are often portrayed as immature or clownish. Yet, she came away admiring the ability of many famous redheads—like the quirky and offbeat Katharine Hepburn—to turn negative stereotypes into something positive. “They took something that targeted them as different and were able to parlay it into something that marked them as special,” Daniel said in a recent interview. “She turned it into solid gold!”

Whatever ambivalent stereotypes exist out there (at least there are no “redheaded moments!”) you will find that parents of redheads are a fiercely proud bunch. As Savannah Sachs, president of Princeton’s Redhead Society, told me recently: “I got a tattoo and piercings, but my mother would never allow me to dye my hair.”

Long before personally rolling the genetic dice, I had pictured myself as the mother of a spunky freckle-faced child, wild and beautiful, with hair to match. As a teenager, I came to appreciate and embrace my red hair and freckles as something that made me feel different and unique.

Both my husband and I claim solid ginger credentials, although the years have taken their toll (he was a red-bearded strawberry blonde before the gray took over, and a college boyfriend used to call me “Red,” but no one does these days). There are redheads on either side of our family: twin cousins on my mother’s side, and our old painting of my husband’s Aunt Betty, the world traveler, speaks redheaded volumes.

Still, what were the chances of having three little carrottops of our own?

Apparently, pretty good: Lauren has her father’s strawberry waves. The youngest, Maclain, is called “Lucky” at school, as in the cereal box leprechaun. And my middle child’s thick curls declare, “Here comes Molly!” in a radiant shade that regularly draws stares. As a toddler, she would growl from the depths of the supermarket cart, fed up with all the matronly shoppers who stopped by to praise and touch.

I remember a day, years ago, when the proprietor of a Harlingen flower shop spotted me and my three little ones getting into our car outside her shop. She came out holding three fabric-sculpture ornaments and wearing a sheepish grin. “I have redheaded grandchildren, and I just couldn’t resist,” she explained.

Every Christmas when I hang those ornaments on my tree, I know exactly how she feels.

Karen Hastings wrote “Princess for a Day” in the July issue of Texas Co-op Power.