November 24, 2009

Desperately Seeking Curls

I have spent my entire life – nearly five decades now – looking in the mirror and seeing what isn’t there. The ears that went unpierced, for example, because my mother wouldn’t give her permission and Leggett – the downtown department store that in the ’70s was the only place to get one’s ears pierced in my hometown – required parental permission for anyone under sixteen. I felt the sting of intact earlobes whenever my friends exchanged earrings for birthdays and at Christmas. "You’d look so cute with pierced ears," they’d say, and "Your mother doesn’t let you wear make-up?" for that was something else I never saw in the mirror.

In junior high, a girl in my PE class, a girl I didn’t even know, asked to borrow my eyebrow pencil. (Her brow color had apparently evaporated due to the rigors of badminton or volleyball or square dancing.) "I don’t wear eyebrow color," I had to say, thinking, "But I wear the shame of its lack every day."

One of my greatest disappointments was the lack of anything resembling the slightest deviation from the straight and narrow in my hair. Possibly this failure to curl was a learned deficiency or some sort of to-spite-my-face rebellion: my scalp still burns and my nose tingles when I think of being bent over the kitchen sink, towel covering my face, as my mother washed the harsh chemicals of a Toni Home Permanent out of my hair.

In the commercials, perky models with bright eyes demonstrated that with bouncy curls, even a brunette could have more fun. Every time I sat for hours as Mom wrapped tiny sections of hair around tiny curlers, snapping them tightly shut at my scalp, I imagined myself emerging from the damp, smelly kitchen with fetching ringlets. I hoped for glamour and acclaim, but I think Mom just hoped that a permanent wave would make my hair hold a curl long enough to get me to church.

Neither goal was ever satisfied.

As an adult, I spent more money than I care to count getting permed by the pros. Curly perm, spiral perm, body wave, I tried them all, my head, swathed in a plastic bag, filled with the same dreams I’d dreamt as a child. Despite the stylist’s prowess and liberal use of product, I generally emerged from the warm, hair spray-scented salon without the come-hither hair I’d hoped for. When my hair was long, I kept it perpetually permed, long after the ’80s had ended. The style was easy to maintain – I could just let it air-dry, a boon for someone born without the blow-dry gene – and the length removed all resemblance to Shirley or Annie.

Then, one of my dearest friends needed surgery: cancer. They took her uterus, both ovaries, and all hope of motherhood. As I drove home that evening, after spending the day in the waiting room with her husband and several other friends, I was struck by how profoundly and irrevocably her life had been altered. It did not seem fair that I return home unchanged. I swerved into the parking lot of a small salon I had passed daily for many years, asked if they took walk-ins, and paid them to remove every bit of curl from my hair. Trivial, meaningless, insignificant – unnecessary? Maybe, probably, yes. It was all I could think to do.

That was thirteen years ago, and while I have cut, colored, highlighted, and (occasionally) let the gray show, no curlers have touched my hair since. But a funny thing happened: my hair started to curl on its own. Who knew that, along with hot flashes and night sweats, mood swings and anxiety, the hormonal roller coaster of menopause could also bring naturally curly hair? When I look in the mirror now, I still see earring-less ears (I let the holes grow closed) and a face bare of make-up (too much trouble), but I finally have the curls I always wanted, by golly.


  1. I was thinking all the way through this - you've *got* curly hair! :)

    I hope mine does the same as yours soon. It's *much* curlier now than it used to be, but I'd love some more!


  2. Kelly, you made me laugh out loud. :>

  3. haha i hope my hair goes straight when i reach menpause!

  4. How touching. I loved the ending: what one wants so badly at one time is proved to be not really that at all. The parentheticals (I let the holes grow closed), (too much trouble) are a wonderful narrative touch. Really nice piece!