In a photograph of my mother and her sister as children, my mom, a toddler, stares at the camera, her tufts of dark hair hilariously Kramer-like. My slightly older aunt has smooth, straight hair decorated with an enormous white bow.
At 6 years old, I admired my aunt's gleaming bob. The bow was spectacular, but oh, her hair. I'd stare at this picture on my grandmother's wall, my own face flanked by a huge roll of frizz over each ear. I might have been wearing fuzzy blond earmuffs.
Children with asymmetrical follicles were considered top of the heap in those days, perhaps thanks to curly-headed Shirley Temple's popularity when the children's parents were growing up. My mother certainly liked curly hair, and here she had a daughter whose hair was so straight it was practically concave. To correct nature's mistake, she bought Toni's Tonette Home Permanents, advertised as an easy-peasy way to give straight-haired children a chance at happiness.
I didn't want curly hair. Shirley Temple was OK, and I idolized Annette Funicello, so adorable in her Mouseketeer hat. But on my own personal head, I wanted straight hair. No sleeping on hard pink plastic rollers; no stabbing those rollers to my head with plastic picks that gave me scalp dents; and no frizz.
My preferences were overruled. My mother could be stubborn. When I was small, she curled what she called "just the ends." The result was a gleaming blond cap that exploded, just above my ears, into huge balls of packing fluff. I looked like the circus clown's apprentice. All I needed was the polka-dot clown suit and big shoes.
My mother started perming my whole head when I was in middle school, when, as you might recall, the way a person's hair looks at any given moment determines her self-esteem and will to live. She softened her victim first.
"This isn't really a permanent," she'd say, as you might say, "This isn't really liver." She'd swear the stuff gave hair nothing but body. I didn't know what "body" was. Would it make my hair flip up or curl under the way other girls' hair did? I'd follow her into the bathroom, a lamb to the slaughter.
Then, the moment the long, smelly ordeal was over and the results were in, the house would shake with slammed doors and my hysterical shrieks. I'd shampoo over and over, review the results, and howl anew.
It must have been hard on my mother, trying to go about her business downstairs while I stormed and wept in my room, but even now, as a mother and grandmother, I'm on my 11-year-old self's side. "You couldn't let me have the hair I wanted?" I ask my mother in my head. "You couldn't let me have the hair I had?"
I could make this a truly heartbreaking tale. I could say: Wasn't it bad enough that my father abandoned his family when I was a bald, 2-week-old baby, not even sticking around to see what kind of hair I had? I could say: Wasn't it bad enough that on his infrequent visits, he showed mild interest in my sister, but none in me? Once I offered him my school picture, and he snorted derisively. "He laughed at my picture!" became a family joke, though I suspect my mother wasn't really laughing.
Yes, this might be a story of misery and frizzery, but honestly, the frizzery mattered more.
Nobody's childhood is perfect. If you don't have an indifferent father, you have a drug-addicted mother, or workaholic parents or PTA-treasury pilferers. I was as lucky as most children and luckier than some.
Except for those hideous, Brillo-pad permanents. Only in high school was I free to have the hair I wanted. Well, not the hair I wanted. A girl named Jody had that. I had to settle for the hair I had. But at least it wasn't frizzy.
And the ending is happy. Once I was a straight-haired person longing for straight hair. Now I'm a straight-haired person longing for ... nothing, really. I have more than enough.
Write to Margo Bartlett at firstname.lastname@example.org.