I grew up believing that all men loved long hair. My mother and both her sisters had attended “beauty school” at one time or other and the experience had raised the subject of female tresses, their maintenance and manipulation to an exalted level. There were two aspects of this predicament; one being that I got lots of free haircuts, perms, French braids and party hair-dos, with manicures thrown in as extra benefits. The other result of their training was that I had to endure some humiliating and experimental coiffures which were usually unbecoming, unendurable or impractical.
At one time, the youngest of Mother’s sisters spent hours putting my hair in tiny braids all over my head. This was during the 1940s, long before we’d ever heard of corn-rows. Because my hair was long this same aunt once teased my unusually soft and fine tresses into a great bush of snarls, then proceeded to fashion it into what resembled a helmet of matted wool– the whole thing then varnished with extra-hold hair spray. This aunt was the only one of the three who actually worked in a beauty salon and spent a good many years as a popular operator in the beauty salon at Younkers in Des Moines. I suspect she tried out her most outrageous ideas on me before abandoning them.
My other aunt, who lived near their three bachelor brothers and who had a young son, specialized in short haircuts, since about the only victims she had available were men. It was my great fortune that the only opportunities she had to attack my hair were those summers that I spent a week or two on the farm with her. Fortunately, by that age, I had learned to braid my own hair (my traditional summer hair-style) and could get my locks in order each morning before she could get her hands on me.
My mother, being a mother first, and having four girls with plenty of hair to manage, was more practical than the aunts. For one thing, she had to do four heads every morning until we’d each managed to prove that we could make a respectable job of it on our own. And, she had to see that our heads showed a reasonable tidiness by the end of the day when Dad returned home. In her mind, having us relatively clean and tidy was proof that she was a good mother, and our hair was a big part of that image.
Of the four of us, I was the only one with hair that tended to curl. It was soft and fine and grew rapidly, so rather than having to trim it every week, she opted to keep it in long, sausage-shaped curls during most of the year, resorting to braids during summer when there were swimming lessons and water-fights to contend with. To maintain the long curls, my hair had to be rinsed with beer after each shampoo (beer was a popular forerunner to setting gel, which had not yet been invented). While still damp, the hair was divided into curl-size clumps and wrapped around half of a foot-long strip if cloth. Then the tail of the cloth was wrapped around the hair and tied to its other end at the top. When all the curls had been wrapped, I seemed to be wearing a white wig accented with a couple dozen white ribbon bows. These curls had to dry completely before being unwrapped, and that meant sleeping on them for the night. It was probably because of all those hard knots that I got into the habit of sleeping on my stomach, my forehead resting on my crossed forearms.
Once dry, the curls were unwrapped and carefully brushed, one by one, around Mother’s finger. The beer smell had dissipated, leaving the hair tight and springy, easily holding its shape– for most of the day, at least. There was often a hasty repair job and a fresh ribbon bow added just before Dad got home from work. Dad always admired my curls.
When I was about nine years old, I began to notice that none of my friends and classmates had those long, little-girl curls and became more than a little self-conscious about them. In spite of Dad’s preferences, Mother took pity on me and announced that she was planning to cut my hair so that it would be possible for me to manage it on my own. I was getting a bit old to have to have my mother comb my hair every morning, she said. Dad understood the reasoning behind this, so one fine Saturday, Mother put my hair up in rags for what would be the last time for a good many years, took a picture of me posing beside the birdbath with my long, shining curls, then cut them off. My dad, even though he had been warned, had tears in his eyes when he saw my curls, tied with a yellow ribbon, in a nest of tissue paper in a little box.