What I find so enjoyable about writing fiction is how I get to fold true life into my made-up worlds.
The project that I’m focusing on this year takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a pivotal and traumatic time in my childhood. Not everything was ugly, though. The Lowe Family found joy in some of the most basic household activities.
Like hair time. Our hair was braided or pressed or curled or ‘fro-combed. Mom would line us up in the evening and prepare our hair for the next day. We would watch television together while she did it, talking about the day, laughing at the show, or doing homework. Eventually we took over for Mom and prepped each other’s hair.
These are fond memories, and there is no way that I can write about life in the Sixties and Seventies without including my family’s hair ritual. In those decades I went from pigtails to Afro. Imagine the fun I will have with that.
Some of the most tender times with my mother happened during these sessions. I want to bring in that blessing as well.
I found this chair listed on an antique furniture seller’s website: an oak throne chair, English style, barley twist, needlepoint, circa 1780 — perfect for my idea of Mother Eugenia, the deceased but beloved matriarch in my story. The chair’s style is what she would have required in her fancy home. (Image source.)
Here is a bit of a scene from the story I’m working on, where we find young Lena having her time in the pressing chair with Aunt Winnie. I’ve sandwiched this between scenes of Lena’s hard morning with peers and a strong memory of her father’s death.
The pressing chair held a place of honor in Winnie’s kitchen. She had been the one to insist on having her mother’s chair there and not in the living room. Milly argued with her, but in the end, Winnie had her way. There was no resisting her explanation that Mother Eugenia would rather be sitting with the rest of them (“She’s still here in spirit”) than gathering dust in a room “nobody but the dog uses.”
Lena’s turn in the pressing chair came once a week, usually on Saturdays with the ending of lunch. After the morning’s disappointment, she was glad to be inside and out of view.
“Aunt Winnie’s not hurting you, now is she, Lena?”
“No.” Lena grimaced. Aunt Winnie’s strong hands combed and parted and braided her hair into sections. She scooped oil from the jar, rubbed her palms together, and smoothed it through a section of Lena’s hair. “I’ll be out of grease when I’m through. You going to the store today?”
“No, but Digger might. Or Mama. She said she’s out of her headache medicine.”
“Well, let me know.” Winnie refused to use chemicals in her hair styling: “You ever read the ingredients on the box? And you want me to put that on your hair? Uh-uh. No way. Who you gonna come and yell at when your hair all falls out? Yeah. I thought so.”
Lena tried her best to keep her head still while her aunt worked, and she knew not to talk unless she was questioned. Pressing Lena’s hair gave Winnie the opportunity to slip away, her mother told her. Back some forty years before Digger came along and put a stop to her dream.
The smoke hung in the kitchen like fog. Winnie lifted the comb from the burner, shook it for cooling, and pulled it through a section of Lena’s hair. The mixture of hot iron and oil gave off an aroma that was only pleasant in its familiarity. Lena didn’t mind the smell or the sizzling. For her, it was the means to a hopeful end. ∞
Oh, the memories I have of the hot comb. My mother used Bergamot, Hair-Rep, petroleum jelly, and a variety of other types of “grease.” I remember them well, along with the burns on my forehead, neck, and ears. I used a hot comb occasionally during my adulthood, too, and I still have one stored away. Just in case, I guess. 🙂
(Note: The hair pressing image source is difficult to determine. Please claim it if it is your own.)
What childhood hair care memories do you have?