Keeping Up Appearances

As a small child, washing my hair was a task I particularly hated. I would scramble on top of the washing machine, a large cold metal beast, and I would lay on my back, my head dipping back into the kitchen sink that was right next to the washer. Mom would lay a kitchen towel on the machine, but as I wriggled and squirmed through the hair washing torture, the towel would bunch or slide away entirely. Before long, my baby skin would be pressed into the cold metal, a bone-chilling feeling that 45 years later I can still feel as clearly as if it had happened this morning.

With my head tilted backwards, the hair washing would begin as cups of water were dipped and poured to wet my hair. As a wiggly child, the water would get in my eyes, soon mixing with the abundant flow of tears that punctuated my opinion of the whole event.  Not long into this, the sting of shampoo would burn and it was all my mother could do to keep keep me in place so she could scrub and rinse. I can still feel the relief of hearing her tell me I was done.

“Done” was never very accurate, however, because my mother was far from done after these hair washings. With my long hair still cold and dripping, my hair still had to be set, a painful way of describing my hair being rolled in scratchy rollers that she would stab furiously with a plastic pin to keep it in place, followed by metal crimpers that lined my head in even rows. I was sent off at that point, my head as heavy as if I were wearing a helmet, to go play, but cautiously, lest one of the rollers came loose and wound its way down my back where it would scratch and prick until my mother would scold me and correct it.

It was a funny bygone era my mother lived in, where little girls had curls coaxed out of baby fine hair and wore smocked dresses and Oxford shoes. I remember emerging with my mother where her friends would exclaim, “She looks just like Shirley Temple!” I didn’t know who this “Shirley” was and assumed from their voices that she was another little girl who had her hair crimped and rolled, but was probably obedient and didn’t cry because the washing machine was cold. We shared a name, with one of my middle names being Shirley, and I knew I wouldn’t like her. I generally did not like the people I had been compared to as they smugly set a standard I was forced to live up to.

And yet, in spite of my dislike of this other Shirley, I was proud that I could drink tea without much sugar and could hold a tea cup in my small white gloved hand without spilling. I dabbed my mouth with a napkin on command and wished for a pair of creamy lace gloves like my grownup sister wore.

It was the early 1970’s when I sat quietly with my clothes and manners from a bygone era, eating tiny sandwiches with my mother’s friends, most of them war brides with accents that bespoke of proper breeding. The lessons I learned with these ladies stayed with me for life: do your hair, wear dresses, cross your legs at the ankle, speak well and choose friends who have a good accent.

I also learned that hair spray and gum is for fast women and that red lipstick is only for evening events.  Confusing these rules would get you excommunicated from the tea sipping ladies with their tightly pursed lips that could silence a “fast woman” mid-sentence. Nonetheless, I was drawn to the bright red Avon tester tube my mother had left laying around. I never dared use it, but owning my very own red lipstick became a lifelong dream worth chasing. My mother would be horrified to know that I don’t limit it to evening use, but would possibly breathe a sigh of relief to know I don’t use hair spray and do not chew gum. My closest friends have a variety of accents, and my gift for accents is like a party trick. It amazes everyone that I can detect a lilt or a tick so faint, I know whether or not both parents of strangers spoke English in their childhood homes. I am more amazed that others can not hear the difference.

My mother trained me well.

Decades later, I still fear the disapproving turn of their heads that sent a message stronger than words. Decades later, I wish I had their skill.