My hair was a constant source of difficulty when I was growing up. A mixture of curls, waves and wiry frizz, it was entirely unmanageable. This was before the advent of the myriad of gels, creams, sprays and treatments that line a full aisle of CVS today, products that I take full advantage of now.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, fashion required girls to wear their hair long and stick straight, if they could. I was in a state of war with mine – and my unruly hair was winning.
Combing and/or brushing my hair after washing were a nightmare for me and my mother, and anyone who was within earshot. It was always a jumble of knots that made it unbelievably painful to brush out. I wonder if our neighbors considered calling child protective services – if that existed in the 1960s. I must have sounded like I was being tortured.
Nana entered the fray by offering to take me to her hairdresser. Nana would get her hair done every couple of weeks. She would come back from a session at the beauty parlor with her silver hair teased high, each hair sprayed into submission. Fortunately, that wasn’t what she had in mind for me, though that still might have been an improvement.
After getting Mom’s agreement, Zada drove Nana and me across Brooklyn to her beauty parlor. Neither Nana nor my mother drove, that job was left up to the men or public transportation. We arrived at the salon; Nana was greeted with enthusiastic hellos. The smell of hairspray hung in the air. Most of the other patrons were Nana’s age. I was invited to sit in a raised vinyl chair. I was nervous and excited.
A new style had come into fashion – a shag, which was a layered cut that allowed for curls. I watched the hairdresser cut and shape my hair. Turned out this cut worked for me! When it was done and I looked in the mirror, I smiled. Somehow the texture and wave of my hair worked with the cut. The other people in the beauty parlor commented on how good my hair looked – a new experience for me!
Zada picked us up and drove us back home. We were excited about showing everyone when we got back to the house. Nana walked in with me to see Mom’s reaction. Mom looked at me puzzled for a long minute, brow furrowed, and said, “I have to get used to it.” Her face said she didn’t like it. I burst into tears and ran to my bedroom. As I left I heard Nana say loudly, “Feige, you don’t know your ass from your elbow!”
I had never heard Nana use a curse word – ever. And, I had never heard her say a cross word to my mother. I also had never heard that expression – it conjured up an image that shocked my eleven-year old self. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry – so I did both.
After a minute or two, Mom knocked on my bedroom door. “Nana’s right, Linda,” she said as she sat down next to me on my bed, gently stroking my back. “The cut looks great. I’m sorry for reacting that way. I was just surprised.”
“Ok…but I can’t believe Nana said that!”
“Well, she was upset with me. Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the haircut.”
“You really think my hair looks okay?” I sniffled.
“I do. Go upstairs and let Nana know you’re feeling better.”
As I look back on that incident, and more generally growing up in that house with my parents, grandparents, uncles and brothers, it was more fraught than I understood at the time. There were undercurrents of resentment, disappointment and perhaps jealousy. I didn’t think about how it might have felt for my mother; that came much later. Fortunately, through those undercurrents, love shone through.