Confessions of a Wanna-Be Hairdresser

            One of the many grooming skills I learned from my Mother was how to keep my hair neat and tidy. She valued all things clean. Clean floors, polished furniture, crisp freshly laundered sheets, but more than these, clean bodies including fingernails – and hair topped her list.

            Growing up at a time when showering daily was still in the future, the Saturday night bath was mandatory. That deep claw-foot tub was like a massive indoor pool compared to my tiny stature. Ma would let me play for a bit but then she’d march in and scrub me from head to toe. A vigorous head washing was quietly endured.

            Before handheld hair driers, one’s head of hair dried as ambient temperatures dictated. As a very young child, my hair was cropped short at my chin, thus the drying process didn’t take that long. Later as my hair grew longer, wet hair had to be braided. Ma was a stickler for tight, eye-popping braids. The pain was real.

            But I was always fascinated by ladies’ hairstyles and products. Anyone remember Adorn Hairspray, White Rain Shampoo or Halo? How about bobby pins? Ma used loads of bobby-pin curls to create her WWII hairstyle that she wore well into the 1970s. As women moved onto more updated hairstyles, curlers instead of bobby pins came into popularity for the smooth, full curl you could achieve by installing them in your hair, especially overnight. Ouch! Raise your hand if you remember sleeping with curlers in your hair.

            By the time I reached high school, decisions had to be made. While I learned how to type and keep ledgers in balance in high school business classes, all I really wanted to learn was how to cut and style hair. It had been made clear there wasn’t any next tier of education coming my way, so I learned shorthand and typing well enough to support myself after graduation. Let’s hear it for office skills. I took my frustration out on my own hair and the hair on the heads of my Mother, Father and willing neighbors.

            Vera, who lived across the street from us, was glad to employ me for her once-a-week wash-and-set. This woman had places to go and people to see so looking her best was critical. After getting her hair permed professionally, a chemical permanent wave for those unfamiliar with hair-industry technical vocabulary, the weekly maintenance was entrusted to me.

            Vera liked her tight little curls. The curlers had to be equal to the task. By the time I was done carefully placing row after row of springy tiny curlers all over her rather large head, skewered in place by pink plastic pins, she was ready for her bonnet hair drier.

            This, as some of you will well recall, looked like a small canister vacuum with a large hose that had an equally large bouffant bonnet attached at the end. The bonnet would inflate with hot air once switched on. You couldn’t hear a thing once that puppy was fired up. Sometimes small burnt patches of hair and skin ringed the perimeter of the face from under the thick elastic of the bonnet. What women won’t do to achieve their look.

            Vera paid me two dollars plus tip, big money in those days. She has gone to her reward now, but while she lived, we remained on good terms. In her later years when I was kind of forced to visit her at the nursing home – Vera and Ma were roomies – she was fun to talk to. I’d comb her hair, much to the chagrin of my mother who, whispering under her breath, would say, “I thought you came here to visit me?”

            Doing my mother’s hair, especially in her later years, was a joy. She willingly submitted to my snipping and clipping with faith only a mother could muster. First, there was the hair washing in the kitchen sink, then the cutting and blow drying. There was always a little extra neck massaging thrown in for good measure. Much later in her journey those massages became a way to communicate what her deaf ears would no longer hear: “I love you.”

            Oftentimes Dad would be my customer, but mostly that was for a light trim and a major bushwhacking of his eyebrows. He trusted my steady hand not to poke his eyes out. He wouldn’t say a word that might distract me from the task of taming those wiry protrusions.

            My son was not spared my experiments with hair. I cut his thick, dark hair on many occasions. There was the near mullet I gave him before he was to embark on a trip with other teens from throughout the country who had been selected to sing in a chorus traveling to many countries. He sat bravely in our miniscule kitchen as I sawed through that mane of natural curls until I was satisfied it didn’t look so bad. I have photographs to prove no lasting damage was done. Scary to think that now his hair is fully salt and pepper.

            I never became a hairdresser, I just played one from time to time as needed. Yet it’s never too late to begin something new or, in my case, pick-up where I left off some 25 years ago. Due to the quarantine, I’m back in the hair-cutting business. My latest Guinea pigs are my husband and Harry the Dog.

            I suggested to my husband that I could, in fact, cut his hair during the quarantine. He was willing; the rest is now history. I’ve been doing a darn good job since March. I remind him how much money he is saving by letting me practice on his head, although I know he misses talking sports and politics with his barber, two topics of which we’ll never be simpatico. Absent the smack talk, my man is getting a good haircut even if I do say so myself.

            As for Harry, well he is far less willing. In our basement, I’ve set up a dog grooming station. Harry’s haircuts have progressed nicely from a patchwork quilt affect to a smooth, overall trimming. He is patient with me every now and then, giving a great sigh as if to say, “Are you done yet?” He’s even received compliments from the moms of his doggy pals, Oliver and Breton. Harry graciously accepts all compliments. Practice does make perfect.

This Mattapoisett Life

By Marilou Newell

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