Friday, September 16, 2011

The Smell of Perm Solution in the Morning

Sometimes it was awesome having a mom who happened to be a hair stylist. But as anyone who has seen all of my school pictures can tell you, it was mostly awful.

I got my first perm in 4th grade. I was not the only curly-haired child in my class, but I was the only one who smelled like ammonia for a week to have it. Technically, it was supposed to be a "body wave", but my hair has always been dramatic and over-reactive, much like me. Just wrapping it up in in foam curlers gave me Orphan Annie coils, so Mom shouldn't have been surprised.

"Huh. Well," she said, releasing each plastic roller from the soup of neutralizer resting on my scalp.

"What? What is it? Is it bad?"

"No, not bad, it just...took better than I expected."

She rinsed me out in the kitchen sink at my grandmother's trailer, where she had chosen to give me my first perm on a lazy Sunday in Knox County. Mom was a hair dresser by trade and by hobby, and both my sister and I fell victim to her cosmetological whims when she got bored. I excitedly looked in the big mirror over Mamaw's couch expecting the fluffy, feathered layers the lovely lady on the perm box had. What I saw instead was more like Roseanne Rosannadanna.

I swallowed hard.

"I look ridiculous."

"No you don't, you look great. Like Amy Irving."

Being 10, this was not a huge consolation. I wanted to transform the bowl haircut I had been sporting since I was in kindergarten to something more like what was my classmates were starting to wear, something layered from bangs to ears, long in the back, and curly all over. Later, we would call this a mullet and make fun of it, but if you were alive in 1984, you coveted one. Mom did not feel that she could cut my hair to make it do this magical feathery thing, but she thought a perm would do it.

It did not.

Throughout the rest of the 80s and into the early 90s, I was permed, highlighted, and layered a multitude of times in the family kitchen to varying levels of attractiveness and success. Mom definitely reached her peak of expertise with my hair in 1987, when I was in the eighth grade.

My eighth-grade class picture is my favorite picture of me ever because I am what I can best describe as a beautiful disaster of late-80s style. My hair is both very long and very permed; I outgrew my layers and let my hair grow wild down my back with a perm that finally could be called an intense body wave. My mother let me start cutting my own bangs, and she showed me how to layer them so that, with a curling iron and an abundance of Final Net, I could create a deceptively messy Kentucky Claw that looked like I had just rolled out of bed and into a briar patch. No one would have guessed it took me 15 minutes per morning just to get those bangs to look so carefree and casual. I had the rest of my hair pulled back into a banana clip, with loose tendrils curling whimsically around my face. The ponytail part of the banana clip is so long it hangs a little over my shoulder and around the popped collar of my Coca-Cola shirt. Mom also sold Mary Kay around this time and turned me loose with all the creams and powders in her pink saleswoman's suitcase, and Teen magazine had just told me that wearing one color of eye shadow all the way to the brow bone created a dramatic look, so I smeared satiny brown eye shadow from lashes to brows. It was dramatic, it was trashy, it overdone, and it was fabulous. My mother was so very proud.

Other cuts and perms created school pictures I am less proud of. The last time I let my mother lay hands on my hair was the fall of 1990 when I was trying to grow my bangs out so I could look like the most beautiful woman in the world (in my opinion): Kirstie Alley. Mom thought it would help me through that awkward stage where my they just wanted to fall into my eyes if she permed just my bangs (a body wave again, of course). The logic was that they would curl back away from my face and blend in with the rest of my hopelessly damaged and over-processed hair.

"Oh, look," my dad said, taking a stroll through the kitchen while Mom tried to figure out what to do with the wreckage her little "just perm the bangs" experiment left behind. "It's Bill the Cat."

A couple of months later, as soon as an inch of straight hair had grown out from the crimped mess covering my forehead, I cut my bangs so short I looked like a 9-year-old boy and used the excuse that I had just landed the role of the Artful Dodger in Oliver.

"I did it for the role," I told my friends. My hairdresser knew the truth.

From that day on, even if I came to her begging for a haircut or something more intense, my mother vowed to keep at least 500 feet away from my hair at all times. And I became something of a hair artist myself, cutting my own bangs and several of my dorm mates' in college using the techniques Mom taught me for lift and volume. My husband did, however, learn of my limitations the night in Lexington when I tried to give him a haircut with electric clippers right before a big job interview. The initial result was a reverse mohawk, which he chose to correct by just shaving his head down to the scalp all over and hoping that his potential employers did not brand him a skinhead. (He got the job.)

I am my mother's daughter, after all.

Before she retired from her job to be a full-time nanny to Ainsley when I went back to work, I used to go watch her work her magic. Whatever errors she had committed to me she did not do to the little old ladies at the nursing home where she worked the last decade of her career. With a bucket full of hard, plastic rollers, a rat-tailed comb, a sharp pair of scissors, and a stationary hair dryer, she could work magic. Sometimes her clients had hair so thin they barely had hair at all, and in those cases, she coaxed elegant curls out with just her fingers and some bobby pins. No matter how sick and haggard a patient looked coming into Mom's salon, she always looked like a lady on the way out.

And when she gave the occasional perm, she always got it right.

I may not have always liked the results, but I loved the process. When I was in Mom's chair, I felt like an adult. I had her full, undivided attention, and I knew she was going to do something that would, hopefully, make me feel beautiful.

Some mothers and daughter bond over baking, or shopping, or clothes. My mom and I bonded over perm solution and hard-hat hair dryers. My hair was never the same, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

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