Sharon Urquhart’s hair-dressing salon was a modest addition built to a small bungalow in Grand Anse, Cape Breton, a wide spot in the road between Port Hawkesbury and St. Peters. The salon, someone once said, looked like a Norman Rockwell painting — men getting their hair cut, women under bee-hive hair dryers, pets and kids coming and going, everybody talking.
The talk was not trivial. Sharon was a born intellectual, and she loved to talk about books and ideas, music and travel, gardening and politics, and particularly the theatre. She had a degree from Dalhousie in theatre, and she refused to be kept from theatrical experiences simply because she lived in the country and never learned to drive. Instead she would scoop up her husband and her daughter and organize a trip to see Cirque du Soleil, Peter Pan, The Rolling Stones, Ben Heppner, Les Miserables. Halifax? You bet. Toronto? Fine.
“She always knew what was going on culturally,” recalls her cousin and close friend, Ken MacInnis. “And she could always get tickets to anything. She was famous for it. Speed dial was her friend.”
“Sharon had an artist’s soul,” says her friend Denise Saulnier. “She did hair design for her clients, but she also ran a mini art gallery in her salon where the ‘show’ on the walls changed with the seasons. She loved painting, sculpture, music, dance. It’s not surprising that she studied theatre – a field where all the arts come together at once.”
Carpe Diem, said the motto from Horace painted on her wall. Seize the day! In her youth she hitch-hiked across Canada, worked in Toronto and returned with a German luthier named Johannes Sturm. A luthier in Cape Breton is as important as a farrier at the Preakness; the last time I was in Johannes’ shop, he was massaging a guitar while J.P. Cormier anxiously looked on.
When their only daughter was born 12 years ago, Sharon and Johannes made sure that Ava learned to fiddle and step-dance, playing at concerts and festivals across the island. And so the little bungalow with the hair salon became a focus of another generation of gifted young people. Ken MacInnis’ wife Mary remembers Sharon as a momma duck, always followed by a flock of ducklings: Ava and her friends, nieces, a sister-in-law, more friends, other children.
An intensely social woman, Sharon was an active player in the United Church and the school advisory council. She created extravagant floats for local parades, and built haunted-house sets inside the fire hall at Hallowe’en. Hair-dressing suited her perfectly, bringing her a constant stream of personalities, conversations and ideas, and she was exceptionally good at her work. My wife Marjorie, a city-reared woman with an extensive experience of ruinously-fashionable hair-dressers, never had better hair-care than she did with Sharon, who also became her cherished friend.
Sharon delighted in learning, and she was a tireless researcher. In her encounters with ideas, she had a warrior spirit, fearful of nothing, always willing to face and tell the truth. Over the sinks in which she washed her clients’ hair was a big mural of Narcissus — a reminder to us, perhaps, not to be too preoccupied with our own appearances.
Her salon often doubled as a counselling office. Finding themselves alone with Sharon, people would unburden themselves in the most intimate way. Sharon listened, commented sympathetically, made suggestions, and kept her mouth shut. But if someone said something nice about you, she made a point of passing it on.
Last fall, Sharon learned that her slight cough was a symptom of lung cancer. She fought it valiantly. In March, her small community organized a spectacularly-successful day-long fundraiser for her and her family. On June 10 she died. She was only 51.
In 18th-century Paris, a “salon” was a scene of brilliant cultural conversation, “conducted” by an inspiring host whose guests strove both to amuse one another and also to refine their taste and knowledge. What Sharon really did, said Marjorie, was not to operate a salon, but to conduct one. Yes, exactly. We have lost someone who helped us all to find the very best that was in us. What a loss. And what a legacy.
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