If “Jesus loved the little children” so darn much, as the old hymn proclaims, why did He make little girls curl their hair for Sunday School? “Suffer the little children . . .” And suffer we did.
Every Saturday, my mother would set my hair with horrible brush rollers.
First she’d use the handle of the rattail comb to dig out a hunk of my aggressively straight hair.
Then she’d dip the comb end into an aluminum tumbler of stale Hudepohl beer (which wouldn’t stink, so Mom said) and then she’d pull the comb through the section.
Finally, she’d roll the sodden mess on a brush roller and, using her front teeth, pry open a bobby pin and jam it in, attaching, it seemed, the roller to my scalp. In a “stitch in time” measure, she stabbed a pink pokey thing into the roller and didn’t stop until she drew blood.
I had a choice: Mom could wash and set my hair on Saturday morning and take the curlers before I went to bed; or she could set my hair Saturday evening before she and Dad went out for the night, and I’d have to wear the wretched tubes of torture to bed.
Each mode of suffering resided in its own circle of hell.
If Mom curled my hair in the morning, I had to wear the rollers all day, when I biked or went to Woolworth’s or watched Sky King. There was always the danger that a roller might become dislodged, but that was nothing compared to the humiliation I experienced when I saw someone I knew when I was wired, it seemed, for sound.
Around the house I was forced to wear a fetching curler cap, a pastel fabric cap alluringly accessorized with cheap nylon lace. If a taller person looked down on my head, it looked like the underpants on Aunt Bea’s backside.
When we went out, Mom would replace the cap with a square scarf folded into a triangle, tying it at the nape of my neck. Thanks to this shrewd camouflage, nobody even noticed the curlers in my hair, so Mom said.
Wearing the curlers to bed had the advantage of privacy, but that wasn’t worth the discomfort. The only way to scratch the itch caused by a brush roller was by using the very same roller to scratch. Well, that, or use one of Mom’s knitting needles to poke down to the site of the itchiness. Sometimes in my sleep (I told my mother), “Some rollers fell out,” which resulted in a straight section to the left of my part.
I really didn’t realize how much the curlers hurt until I experienced the relief when Mom took them out. Oh, the ecstasy of digging my fingers beneath the beer-stiff curls and scratching like a flea-bitten dog! No matter how fiery my head felt, I needed to scratch, and I. Could. Not. Stop! Mother told me to sit on my hands.
I looked in the mirror to see my head covered in curls: I had become the Lamb of God!
Mom used the expensive boar bristle brush to “relax” the curl, and then the rattail reappeared to tease some height into my baby fine hair. Once coiffed in a goofy mess topped with a poodle’s brow of too-short bangs, Mom anchored the ‘do with a robust spray of Aqua Net.
Sometimes I’d stay with Grandma Mootsie on Saturday nights and go to church
with her and Grandpa Gil Sunday morning. If my hair had not been set that morning, my grooming was left up to Mootsie.
One time she said, not in a mean way but in an I-love-you way, “You look tired, Sugar. Aren’t you getting enough sleep?” And then I had my chance to whine about those vile brush rollers Mother made me wear.
Mootsie made this little clicking sound with her tongue, which told me that brush rollers were not the thing for little girls, and she pulled me into her scrawny, bony chest and massaged the back of my head to make the hurt go away.
Mootsie had a solution. She told me she had used rags to put curls in my mother’s hair when she was a little girl. This sounded ever so much better than brush rollers, so I enthusiastically assented to a new beauty regime.
Mootsie found an old bed sheet and tore it into strips, then swirled and twisted and tied them in my hair, resulting in a shelf of a dozen little pillows at ear level.
When Mootsie unwrapped my hair the next morning, I was delighted to behold springy, Shirley Temple sausage curls hanging like stalactites from my scalp. I loved these action toys on my head: if I nodded my head, the curls looked like they boinged off a trampoline.
When I saw my mother at church, she was furious at my grandmother and embarrassed by my appearance. I didn’t understand. Mootsie was a nice grandma. She even re-ironed all the clothes my mother had packed for me.
Periodically, my mother’s patience with my obstinately straight hair gave out, and she was inspired to give me a “little permanent.” The product name, “Tonette,” sounds girly and gentle, a little nudge to Nature’s oversights. But there was nothing delicate in the application of a permanent wave.
There were little plastic rods affixed with elastic bands, and these didn’t particularly hurt, but the smell of the permanent solution nearly knocked you out. It’s an ammonia stench that makes every one of your nose hairs stand at attention. I once passed out after a medical procedure, and the nurse used smelling salts to rouse me. Before I even opened my eyes, I thought, “I’m getting a permanent.”
The idea, according to my mother, was not to get curl, but to get “body.” Whose body, I wanted to know. One time my mother gave me a Tonette the night before a Girl Scout Day Camp. All day, a blistering July day, I wore a hooded sweat shirt . . . to cover all that freaking “body” springing from my Harpo Marx head.
All this for a girl who liked to wear a coonskin hat.
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