It’s fitting, I suppose, that I have unruly hair. I’m a pretty unruly woman. But, sometimes, I think it’s my mother’s fault…
Some of my earliest memories are of my hips wedged between my mother’s ample thighs atop our ultra-chic, avocado green, vinyl couch. For reasons known only to her, she insisted on using a comb on my hair. And, not just any comb, but one of those barber’s combs with skinny, pointed teeth that were so close together a dime wouldn’t pass through them. As she raked those teeth across my scalp, I gritted my own and prepared for the blood that was sure to start running into my eyes just any minute. Occasionally, I howled, until I realized that only made her angry, causing her to plow even deeper.
The only respite from the raking came when she found what she referred to as a “knot”. I don’t know how it happened or why. I only know that every single time my mother raised a comb to my head she found the hair at the nape of my neck to be a tangled morass that inspired her to mutter mild epithets between groaning tugs.
There was lots of “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!”, even though we both knew she’d seen it just last Saturday. And she whined a lot. Occasionally, the comb she extracted contained more than hair. The mass more resembled a bird’s nest than a knot, with wisps of lint and the occasional tiny scrap of paper woven into the mix.
And then there were the permanents…
For years, my mother lined us up on linoleum that was scored to resemble stone, if you were willing to allow that stone could possibly be tinged the same avocado green as the couch. By now, she’d invested in detangler which allowed her comb to slice through our tresses, unfettered. It was pretty smooth sailing, really, until it came time to roll. Because, rolling required wrapping, and wrapping involved small wisps of tissue paper, and, once again, she met her match at my nape.
At this point, she turned us over to my grandmother who owned a beauty shop on the ground floor of what would now be termed an assisted living high-rise. The real money, however, was made styling hair for regular customers who no longer required a return appointment. She spent Saturday mornings at the funeral home. Mother dropped us off after lunch and picked us up several hours later.
“Remember now!”, my grandmother called from the porch where she stood with one waving hand raised. “Don’t wash it for at least two days, so you don’t wash it out!”
I spent the ride home calculating how I could gain entry of the bathroom before my sister.
I drove myself the last time my grandmother curled my hair. By that time, I was compelled by more than style. By that time, the trek across town, and the smelly chemicals, the pulling, the tugging, and hot minutes spent under the hood of a hair dryer were a trade-off. Because, after she curled my hair, we could visit. She took me outside to her sun porch. She showed me her plants, some of which were decades old. She talked to me about them, told me how to grow them, and pulled up tiny samples for me to root when I returned home. It was worth the thirty minutes or so I would spend with my head in the sink later that evening.
The last time my mother tackled my hair involved one of those new-fangled curling irons; the kind encased in plastic bristles, the kind that not only curled your hair but brushed it, too. She was dolling me up for some kind of event. It may have been Easter. Easter was a big deal at our house. It was one of two times, each year, that my parents would accompany us to church. We dressed in new dresses and wore pantyhose from freshly cracked eggs.
My mother separated a swath of hair from the crown of my head, twirling it around the plastic-bristled, metal shaft. Steam billowed from the contraption in her hand as she marked time. Time came, and she rolled her hand in an attempt to un-wrap. But, it wouldn’t. The curling iron, with its rows of plastic bristles, had a death-grip on my hair. Steam billowed from the crown of my head as my mother pulled and whined, pulled and whined.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!”
Whines turned to whimpers as we both imagined what I would look like after she cut the hair at the scalp in order to remove it from the shaft. My mother cursed. My sisters watched in horror. Finally, the hair loosened. I never saw the curling iron again.
Two weeks later, my mother made an appointment for both of us at the hair salon she frequented. Despite odiferous armpits at the end of her pendulous arms, Sandra could feather with the best of them. Kristy McNichol had nothing on me…
I was in the eleventh grade. I don’t know why I remember that, but I do. I drove quite a distance to the salon and was somewhat taken aback by the pumping, bass-driven beat of the music that greeted me as I entered. “Toto? We’re not in Kansas anymore…”
A tall man with sallow skin under his brush cut rushed, as fast as his leather pants allowed, to reach me. I left with what amounted to a crew cut. And, I loved it…but I never did it again.
Since then, I’ve been shorn by a tattooed biker chick, one Valley Girl, a middle-aged woman with an unfortunate spiral perm, and one really nice Vietnamese man. He didn’t try to talk to me. I like that in a stylist.
Several weeks ago, I got the urge. You know the one; that feeling that you have to have your hair styled…NOW! Several weeks ago, the Valley Girl had sent me home looking like something the cat had dragged in, and it wasn’t the first time. As I left work, I made the decision to stop at the first salon I passed.
It took longer than I anticipated. I was almost home. The sign on the marquee read “Famous Hair”. The fact that it occupied a space just two doors down from the market was a huge selling point.
She was introduced as “Nancy”, but I’m willing to bet her green card reads “Tran” or “Nguyen”.
“What you want?”, she asked, whipping a black, nylon robe round my neck, matador-like.
I produced a copy I’d made of a style I’d found on the internet. Nancy laced tiny fingers through my hair as she studied the picture, frowning.
“But it doesn’t matter…”, I laughed. “I gave up a long time ago. My hair does what it wants to do…and I let it.”