When I was growing up, our next-door neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Gilhooley, an elderly couple whose children were grown and had moved away. Their house had a wrap-around front porch. Mr. Gilhooley sat by the front door and faced the street while he chewed tobacco and spit into an Eight O’Clock Coffee can. Mrs. Gilhooley sat around the corner where her chair faced the side of our house, probably so she wouldn’t have to watch the chewing and the spitting. Just below the railing of that side porch, three brilliantly pink peony bushes, Mrs. Gilhooley’s pride and joy, blossomed all summer long. Mrs. Gilhooley pruned them, built supports for them, and often gave cut blooms to my mother who enjoyed their fragrance.
Mrs. Gilhooley wasn’t mean, and she wasn’t particularly nice. What she was, was “there.” As in always “there,” on the porch, rocking and knitting or dealing with the peonies. Every time she would see me, she’d say the same thing, “What nice curls you have, dearie. Keep eating those bread crusts, and you’ll always have curls.” If she saw me twice a day or twelve times a day, it was always the same greeting.
I despised my curls. I picked all the crusts off the bread I ate, but it did no good. The curls remained, untamable. Every morning I stood in front of my mother while she tried valiantly to get the comb though the tangles that had accumulated during the night. She’d section my hair and shape baloney curls around her fingers, and then she’d tie a bow at the top of my head before school. By lunch time, the tangles would have reappeared, and a repeat of the morning’s torture would follow when I came home for lunch. There was not one thing about the procedure that I looked forward to except its conclusion.
My chestnut-colored hair turned blue-black as I outgrew the baloney curls. My sister, Fran, cut my hair to chin length, and she showed me how to use barrettes and bobby pins to tame my locks. I turned 16 in 1960 and got my first job as a car hop at the Embers just outside of town. This was the year of the Jackie Kennedy flip and the long, straight hair of folk singers like Joan Baez, the barefoot Madonna. I could aspire to being neither. But I did save up my earnings for a visit to Mrs. Featherall, the hairdresser, where I paid to have may hair lightened to chestnut brown and cut to “pixie” length. My mother and Mrs. Gilhooley were not pleased. Neither, it turns out, was I. As the pixie length grew out, so did the color fade, and the curls came back with a vengeance. My best friend, Naomi, suggested that I let it grow over the summer, and then I could set it on huge brush rollers at night, and it would stay smooth.
Thus began eight years of sleeping on curlers every night. Throughout high school and college, I wore my hair first in the Jackie flip and then in a long page-boy style. To save time when I became a first-year teacher, I went back to very short hair, which I pretty much kept throughout adulthood. Never dealing with curly hair again was my goal.
My last hair cut occurred in late February. Here’s what I discovered. I love my curls! Now that we have hair products, corkscrew frizz becomes curls. Who knew? I spent 60 years, denying my natural hair. Mrs. Gilhooly, I eat all the crusts on my bread now.