Straight Hair Be Damned
Commanded to take a seat, I climbed up in the big brown leather chair, smoothing underneath my legs the prissy, green dress my mom had forced me to wear.
I removed my black cat-eye eyeglasses and turned my face up to Miss Ruth’s, my mother’s beautician. Standing six feet tall, with a back as straight as a yard stick, she cut an imposing figure. Miss Ruth wore a white uniform to work every day that was as crisply starched as the Navy standard from her past. Her voice, husky with cigarette gravel, mesmerized both Mom and me. She usually told stories while we sat in her station, where there was no funny business allowed. She said things only she was willing to say. “I’ll tell you what I’d do,” was her favorite growled out response to anyone’s conundrum. Miss Ruth was a single mom raising a teenager in 1968, and she had a hard shell. Miss Ruth never spoke of being married, so it appeared she had been single parenting before most people considered it something which could even be done.
Mom was one of Miss Ruth’s regular customers. She had a standing appointment on Saturdays for a bouffant, the most popular “do” for women in the 1960s. Considered an easy style to achieve and maintain, the bouffant consisted of curling the hair, then back combing and teasing it into either a round bob encircling the face or a bob with the ends turned up. A liberal amount of hairspray was the finishing touch in achieving a vibrant, fresh, pleasing look that could withstand wind and rain and hurricane intact.
I went along with Mom to her hair appointments begrudgingly until I stumbled across the stack of movie magazines in the back room with the hair dryers. While Mom was having her hair curled, combed and lacquered into the helmet meant to last until her next appointment, I would buy a small bottled Coca-Cola from the shop’s fire-engine-red, refrigerated machine. Finding a spot with the old ladies under the dryers, I would catch up on what was going on with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Elvis Presley, and Barbra Streisand.
The little nest I made for myself made for bearable afternoons.
Mom was the first in her family to earn a college degree. She chose to be a schoolteacher – an acceptable career move for women in those days. Early on, Mom bought into the prevailing notion that successful working women also maintained their womanly responsibilities at home. Her workday was never over when she left the school building. Evening hours and weekends were committed to spit-shining our home and preparing meals according to the food pyramid: meat, dairy, veggies, fruit, and starch. There was ironing, creasing, spray starching and hanging clean clothes for our family’s coming week, and teaching and cajoling my brother and me to stop aggravating each other to distraction and to keep our hands to ourselves.
She devoted herself to assuring my father’s satisfaction with all of the above.
“Mom, why can’t you let some of this stuff go,” I told her when I got old enough to realize her expectations of herself. “Things around here don’t have to be perfect.”
Her response was always the same. “People expect these things.”
Going to the hairdresser weekly to have your hair coiffed was a status symbol in the 1970s. It was a luxury for my mom. Mom grew up just outside of a small town lying at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. Three dresses adorned her youthful closet: one dress was set aside to be her going-to-church dress; the other two dresses served as her school clothes. Her father, a salesman for a wholesale grocery, brought in enough to pay bills, but there wasn’t much left for extras. My grandmother’s diligence at gardening, canning and smoking food kept nourishment on the table. I’m not sure who cut my mom’s hair during her childhood, but I suspect it was a family member or neighbor. She likely didn’t have the resources to have a professional stylist touch her hair until she accepted her first teaching job. Having her hair styled weekly was one of the few ways I knew Mom to pamper herself.
Another woman might have practiced self-care by scheduling her husband or a babysitter to watch after the children while she went shopping with friends, snuck alone to a movie she wanted to see, or tucked herself away in a quiet spot to read a book or write letters. Mom wouldn’t consent to such. She viewed herself as a servant — far more comfortable taking care of others than taking care of herself. Perhaps she gave herself permission to have her hair done because she felt it was expected of teachers. The fact that it felt good to have her hair washed and nicely curled was the gravy she rarely shared with anyone. After Mom retired from teaching, the weekly appointments were scrapped in favor of a once-a-quarter perm and her best efforts with pin curls and brush rollers.
Mom made an appointment for me to get my picture taken at W.T. Grant’s Department Store.
In her mind, you were never at your best unless your hair was curled. As I was born without one wave or loose curl on my head, Saturday nights were nightmares for my mother.
She thought I should look my best for church on Sunday mornings, so at about 8:00 p.m. on Saturday nights, she would call me into her bedroom, wet my hair, sit me down on her bed and the horror would begin. She would no sooner get a strand of my hair curled around and clipped onto a roller than a few hairs would spring back. Mom took it personally.
“Your hair is the stubbiest, straightest stuff I have ever seen.”
Once her venting about my hair started, it was good to maintain a meditative state of silence. After about an hour huffing, puffing and fighting my hair onto brush rollers, Mom would send me off to bed.
Sleeping on brush rollers was an art form I mastered early. Shifting my body and head in bed until the weight of my head came to rest on the back quadrant of my head behind either ear saved me from sleepless nights. The rollers didn’t dig into my scalp that way and I was comfortable enough to fall sleep. Sponge rollers would have been the nicer route for gaining overnight curl, but my hair found a way to bounce off those sponges like a spring-loaded door stop snapping back from the pressure of being a door rest.
Brush rollers became Mom’s hope for achieving the look of a well-polished child on Sunday mornings.
Eventually, Mom decided Saturday nights would be nicer for both of us if I got a perm. That is why I found myself sitting in Miss Ruth’s chair on this particular day. I didn’t mind the idea of curls, but would I have a “helmet” of my own by the end of this hair appointment?
I hoped not.
In the 1960s in the South, white churches were the place you went to meet God and get a free judging. Your best dress clothes were to be worn to church on Sundays. Pants were unacceptable for women, as well as wearing a dress without a slip or donning shoes without pantyhose or tights to cover bare legs. Men wore suits, dress shirts and ties. If you appeared in church without the expected fashion bases covered, you could expect to be the subject of someone’s Sunday lunch conversation. For a woman, sending your husband or children to church with wrinkled or dirty clothes meant running the risk of being branded by the other church ladies as a poor keeper of hearth and home. Mom cared what people thought. It was evident in our Saturday night hair rolling adventures, her stress on always wearing a slip under my dresses, and, in time, wearing a girdle to control my adolescent bulges and baggy pantyhose. She didn’t want anyone whispering about her or me behind our backs. I didn’t either, frankly, so I did what she told me.
Fitting in – looking like everyone else – was exactly what I wanted.
Pleasing my mother was what I desired most of all.
Miss Ruth laid her big chair back, pitching my head backwards across the lip of the bowl. She scrubbed my head until I winced. “Got a tender head?” she asked. I didn’t know what that meant but muttered out something she didn’t bother to hear. When the wash was over, she sat me up, fetched weird-looking curlers out of a drawer, and began rolling my hair as tight as she could. She didn’t seem to have the same problems Mom had with rolling my stubby hair. With the curling complete, Miss Ruth squeezed an entire bottle of stinky stuff over every curl on my head. A cap was secured over my curls and she escorted me to one of the old lady hair dryers in my movie magazine room. The heat from the dryer burned my neck, but I wasn’t going to let her know.
I didn’t want to hear, “Got a tender neck, too, do ya?”
When my hair had fried long enough, she freed my hair from the curling rods like she was unloading a rifle – quick, with no questions asked. Deciding my hair was too thick, she whipped out a razor and began running it up and across some of the strands.
Fffwack. Fffwack. Fffwack. Ouch! Fffwack. Fffwack. Ouch!
There were handfuls of my hair falling through Miss Ruth’s fingers to the floor. Would there be any hair left? After combing through and teasing what was left, she Aqua Netted my helmet and turned me back to my mom with a satisfied smile. I looked like a sheep needing to be shorn. My head was full of tight, red curls. Putting my black cat-eye glasses back on and looking in the mirror, I realized my new look might thrill the old ladies at church but was nothing short of fresh teasing fodder for my friends.
I could hear it now: “Ew, Sharon. Hey, poodle girl!”
Mom then marched me down the strip center to W.T. Grant’s. The photographer was in the middle of the store, surrounded by families waiting their turn before his camera.
I climbed up on the carpeted block waiting for me in the center of his table. The photographer waved stuffed bunnies and chicks before my face trying to secure the angles he wanted. “Sharon, watch the bunny. Oh, he’s a sweet bunny and he likes you. How about giving him a smile? He would love it. Let’s give bunny a smile now on the count of three. One. Two. Three.”
Flash. Blink. Rub my eyes.
“Now Sharon, let’s look over here at the cute little chicken He likes you, too.” I was eight years old and being threatened with exuberant hugs from a bunny and a chicken. I still hugged my stuffed animals, yes, but in private only. Mom was smiling – not at me – but at my curly, luxurious locks. You could see the thought pass over her face:
Straight hair be damned!
When the proofs came back, the picture she ordered had me posed like a little, old, sophisticated lady – sans a smile. I still catch a waft of noxious perm solution when I see that picture.
My mother made many sacrifices for me. She returned to teaching school when my brother was three – after seven years of working inside the home – in order to help Dad pay the bills. The plastic surgery and orthodontic work I needed were expensive. She drove me to countless doctor appointments, sat quietly by my hospital bed after surgeries, and coaxed me out of many a pity party. Her salary was used to pay for my bachelor’s degree.
She gave until she gave out.
What Mom gave and gave up on my behalf wasn’t lost on me. I wanted to be so good, she would never regret a moment she had spent caring for me. Saying yes to something she wanted from me – even when it was something I didn’t want – was easier than seeing her look of disappointment in my going my own way. This set me upon a pattern of people-pleasing which has brought me far more pain than pleasure.
When Miss Ruth stopped working on Saturdays, Mom dropped her as her stylist. Through the years there were many other stylists Mom employed and subsequently left. She could list any number of reasons for leaving each one, but the primary one was they couldn’t get a perm to stay in her hair “worth a doodle.” Menopause left Mom with thin, limp hair which stylists blamed for their failures.
Even after my nephew told Mom she looked like a sheep after one of her perms, Mom couldn’t give them up.
They were the answer to the finished, respectable look – which she required and continually sought. Mom’s final perm was given by a beautician in her assisted living center. The perm looked great, but Mom didn’t like the amount of hairspray the woman had used to force the curl to hold. I wish she had known how pretty she was. Her snowy white hair, her smooth, barely wrinkled face and slightly crooked smile were still a lovely sight. She was enough just as she was – with or without curl. There will not be a more beautiful face for me than the one whose eyes first gazed upon my brokenness, saw what was lovely in me and stayed focused until she garnered the means to bring that out.
I continued getting perms until I was forty years old. My hair started graying and I decided the perms had to go in favor of color. Having both a perm and a color job was too expensive for my pocketbook. On occasion, this new wrinkle in the state of my hair would evoke a conversation with Mom which would begin and end in the same way:
“I don’t see how you stand that stubby stuff hanging in your face. I’ve never seen anyone’s hair grow straight down from the crown like that.”
“Thanks, Mom, It’s not that bad.”
“Well, I couldn’t stand it. It would drive me crazy!”
Today, my hair is long and straight – the way I always wanted it to be. I don’t care what the church ladies think of my coiffure, although one of them did buy me a gift certificate for use at her hair salon after telling me what a fantastic job her hairdresser would do with my hair.
I didn’t use the gift certificate.
The only person I never stopped wanting to please was my mom. Stoic as she was, it wasn’t the easiest thing to accomplish.
My grandmother never told my mom she loved her.
Perhaps that is why Mom spent her life trying to live up to everyone’s standards but her own. I suppose every daughter wants her mom to gaze upon her and deem her beautiful and good. I didn’t hear “beautiful” or “good” from Mom, but I did hear, “I love you.” What I wanted most was for her to be proud of me, but I think my assertiveness and the amount of time my work and interests kept me in the public eye were, at times, an embarrassment to her.
She disagreed with getting involved in things which drew the attention of others to yourself.
More than once, she cautioned me in church not to sing so loud. Watching me redirect a hostess at a restaurant as to how to seat a large party of my family members, Mom said, “Well, leave it to Sharon and her bombasticness to handle things!” She told me more than once she never would have thought I would have turned out to be a minister. It seemed she disapproved of the public nature of the work for me – saw it as a way of my showing off.
In the last years of her life, dementia robbed Mom of filters.
She often expressed anger that what I was trying to do to help her wasn’t what she wanted.
I was in too much of a hurry.
I wasn’t giving her enough of my attention.
I couldn’t explain things so she could understand them.
I’m not sure she left this earth liking me much.
In her mind, she had never been enough and neither had I. It is only the gift of much grace from a kind and loving God that allows me to rise above that. I hope in crossing over, Mom found freedom from the expectations of others. I’m still working on embracing that freedom, but at least in one area I’ve mastered it.
Curly hair be damned!
The only thing I miss from my curly girly days is the movie magazines. Straight hair is enough for me.
Sharon Waters earned an MFA degree in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her short play, “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” was published by All Original Plays in the anthology 30 Short Plays for Passionate Actors. She is the full-time pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation in rural Virginia.