To curly-haired people Mother might have seemed mild-mannered enough, but beneath her calm exterior she nursed a sadistic streak, committing home permanents with malice aforethought, ignoring her helpless daughters’ protests that “I like my hair this way.” and “nobody but old ladies have THAT kind of hair.” squashing arguments with a terrifying directive, “Don’t dispute my word.” “Disputing my word” assured swift and terrible punishment, followed by a furious lecture about how great we had it and ending tearfully with, “and I would have given anything to have a permanent wave like Margaret Lucille, but I had to wear my hair chopped off straight around.” Had I met Margaret Lucille, the author of my misery, I would have gladly pulled out every permanently-waved hair on her despicable head. I hated her than Mother.
Around July 4th every summer, Mother would casually start to dangle the threat that she had to give us a permanent before school started. We’d protest vainly against her response that “She wasn’t going to look at that long, stringy hair all year.” A procrastinator, Mother didn’t get to the evil deed right away. Just before Labor Day, when the humiliation of last year’s perm had grown out enough to be approaching normalcy, Mother would stretch her budget to include a home permanent for each of us. I would have been grateful for cyanide when she dragged out those hateful pink and white “Lilt” boxes. After a long night of dreading the inevitable, Mother got us up early to clean the house so she could start the long perming process. I dragged over to borrow the pink curlers from Miss Joyce, the next door neighbor, hoping to be hit by a truck. When I got back home, defeated, I surrendered to my frizzy fate. Mother seated me on a kitchen chair and cut my hair, using her time-honored secret for a perfect hairdo. She methodically divided my luscious locks (my description, not hers)into sections, started at the bottom, and held up about fifty hairs at a time, measured them against a mark she’d made on a rat-tail comb, and cut. My my mood became increasingly glum as she measured and cut, measured and cut.
After an interminable period, I was ready for the next step. Mother opened the home permanent kit and mixed the deadly chemicals, assaulting the senses with the sulfurous scent of rotten eggs and a healthy touch of essence of pee. Dividing what remained of my hair into tiny sections, wetting it with putrid permanent solution, she wrapped it in papers, and wound it as tight as possible on the hard pink plastic curlers. If my eyes weren’t popping out enough, she’d rewind. Once this misery was accomplished, she sent me on to enjoy the rest of the day, anticipating the frizzy mess I could expect tomorrow, and got to work on my sister’s hair. I tried to stay out of sight to avoid being ridiculed by the neighbor kids.
After trouble and expense of inflicting a perm on us, Mother made us leave the hard plastic curlers in overnight, fearing an early release might let the curl “fall out.” My fine hair was no match for the perm solution, and I was never fortunate enough for my curl to “fall out.” I was glad to get the curlers out the next morning, but dreaded the reveal of the “fried, frizzy, old lady hairdo.” I was never disappointed. Mother took the perm curlers out and we all looked like Brillo Pads. When we complained about how horrible it looked, Mother assured us it would be fine after we rolled it. That just postponed the disaster. When the brush rollers and hair pens came out at the end of the day, it was always even worse than I remembered from the year before. I wanted to die. Mother always tried to cheer us up by saying, “The frizz will wear off in about a week.” When we weren’t cheered by that, she offered the cold comfort, “Well, it will always grow back,” working herself into a self-righteous frenzy of pity when we refused to be grateful for the torture she’d inflicted on us just to ensure we’d be social outcasts for another year. We always went back to school with a frizzy mess, looking we’d escaped from an insane granny cult. The fact that my sisters shared my fate did nothing to cheer me. Who wants to look like that bunch of freaks?