Come for the cut, stay for the stories

May 11—OTTUMWA — Sitting under a salon hairdryer that wasn't in use, it didn't take long for Brinda Young to put away the small notebook filled with tidbits of her life and start telling the stories that have shaped it.

For 50 years, Young has stood behind customers, both looking into a mirror, and heard stories of their lives. She's a hairstylist first, amateur therapist second.

But listening is the point. Whether it's learning about Hanukkah from a Jewish customer, who followed Young from the north side of Ottumwa to the south side, or understanding the grief of a client whose wife died, Young has been there to lend an ear.

"I find that if I share like the death of my daughter at 20 years old, I actually have an example," Young said during a recent visit to her business, "The Young Look," on Bluegrass Road. "(That man) told one of his customers, 'I can't go out there to Brinda anymore. She's lost her daughter and I don't know what to say.'

"So the guy tells him, 'You need to go out there.' He came in and didn't say much, but a few years later, his wife died. He spilled his guts to me, and I think it's because (he knew) I know the grief."

Not every story is sad. Some stories involve children wanting to get their hair bleached a different color and Young doing the deed, only for unknowing parents to find out. Other stories are much more private, and Young didn't want to go on the record about those.

But many of her stories are in her book, "Holy Hairy Calling: A Therapeutic Conversation With a Hairstylist," which she sells at her business. Characters aren't mentioned by their real names, and the book is the result of a three-year creative writing class led by "Empty Nest" columnist Curt Swarm.

Young, 72, worked in various shops in Ottumwa early in her career before opening her own business behind her home in 1983. Many of her clients — today about 50 or so — followed her to her rural Ottumwa location, and it's been a rewarding experience and she's grateful to those who have stood by her and her work.

"I don't think I was really that secure to think that way, but my husband just kept encouraging me to think about it," Young said of opening her own business. "And the more I thought about it, I could have my children here, and it just turned out to be really great.

"When I started here a lot of customers followed me, and I would say, 'If you go out on this road, it's hilly and curvy, and if you don't want to do it, I will completely understand,'" she said. "You have to keep communicating with your customers and tell them where you're going. So I gave them the address, quit the other shop and most of them followed me out here. They loved it."

One of Young's favorite parts of what she calls her "holy hairy calling" is getting the call from the funeral home, with a request to style the deceased's hair. It's a pressure-packed endeavor, but a challenge she enjoys. She said she gets "sporadic" calls from the funeral home to style the deceased.

However, she had to style the hair of a person who had suffered two brain tumors and even though she was being cremated, there was still the visitation.

"I lost sleep over it, because we're talking shaved on one side of the head and it was all long on the other side," Young recalled. "The one thing you have to think about, and nobody does, is that when they're in the casket, the right side is prominent. You have to concentrate on how that shows.

"So I pulled (the hair) over, cut back the long part to cover up the shaved part, and I don't know how many of the family members said, 'Wow, you did such a great job with that.' I'm sure they probably wondered how I was going to do this, so there was a lot of pressure."

Young was blunt about why she wanted to become a hairstylist, go to school for it and pass the boards to be licensed.

"I just always liked to do hair," she said. "I actually went to college and got my degree with music, but when I came out of college, I said to my husband that I just want to go to beauty school and learn how to do it."

Young has no intention of retiring anytime soon. With the recent retirements of barbers such as Rick McFarland a couple years ago after 50 years in the business, and a spring of youthful stylists opening shops, Young is one of the last who have cut at least three generations of hair.

"I have a better deal because I have no overhead, and nobody has told me what to do," she chuckled. "People say to me, 'Why don't you just slow down? Cut your hours. But don't take me off the list.

"I'll just say my kids live on Long Island (New York) and I'm going to be gone 10 days, and they seem to wait. They're very loyal," she said. "But my priority is my family."