From Hair to Eternity

A Dying Art

I work in elder care. I spend a lot of time with people, mostly women who are older than my mother would be were she still alive. I love these ladies. They are a comfort to me more I think than I am to them sometimes. Of my favorites, Miss Ione is one I only get to see from time to time. She has another caregiver but I fill in when needed. Friday is my favorite day to fill in. On Friday, Ione goes to the beauty parlor.

Not the salon.

Not the hairdresser's.

Not the spa.

Not even the beauty salon.

The beauty parlor.

The dictionary defines the word parlor as an old-fashioned living room, especially one kept tidy for the reception of visitors. Ever see the movie "Beauty Shop"? The one with Queen Latifa where everybody speaks their mind? Like that, except old white women. Clean as a whistle, waiting to receive visitors. It is not a young woman's haven. It's not of my time. At 48, I am still young by comparison. The operators young at heart but not on their driver's licenses, stand on their feet all day breathing through a fog of perpetual Aqua Net. The ladies who visit, could all be their mothers! My mother, God rest her soul was a beauty parlor queen every Thursday. For over twenty years she had the same hairdresser. Followed him every time he took a new chair in another parlor. It wasn't until he quit the business that she finally found someone new and then followered her! She had Sammie do her hair until the day she died. Sammie was a friend of her last hairdresser and when Mom couldn't get out to get her hair done, Sammie came to Mom once a week faithfully.

Once a week. The other six were shower cap days. For the life of me, I can't understand how anyone, let alone a woman can go for an entire week without a shampoo. But like my mother, these ladies do. Mom slept on a silk pillow case so her hair would "slide" and not mess. Each morning, she would carefully pick out her hair from where it had crushed until it stood no less than two inches away from her scalp. She would then respray it, adding yet another layer of Aqua Net to her already stiff coif, apply her favorite red lipstick and emerge in to the world an empowered woman. I affectionately called her helmet head. Even in a stiff wind, a strand might wavor while glued to its counterparts, but it never left the fold of the coif. If it rained or even threatened to rain, Mother was ready with her clear plastic hairdo raincap that folded like a road map into a tiny little one inch zipper bag. She had a fancy pink one with a brim she saved for special occassions but kept the clear emergency one in her purse just in case. When I inherited her sewing machine after she died, do you know I found one of those little rain hats in the accessory drawer. For nostalgia sake I put it on. Not a good look.

Its a wonder Mom had any hair left. It was fine as silk to start with, and if you got her head wet, you could see her scalp clean through. Like my ladies, she had her hair backcombed to achieve the desired height. Okay, let's call it what it is. She ratted her hair. I still have her rat-tail brush, a vintage skinny brush with plastic bristles that are starting to fall out in aqua blue with a pointed end that would probably be considered a weapon at airport security. At the beauty parlor, they use a metal rat-tail comb. It looks like it could do serious damage to a body, not just a head of hair.

When I was much, much younger, Mom would brush out her hair before going to get her hair done. I don't know why. It's not like her hairdresser couldn't do it for her. It was just something she did. She brushed out all those layers of spray and the knots from ratting until her hair stood out straight from her head. I would look at her and we would both laugh. For a short time, I guess things must have been frugal at home, Mom did her own hair. Still once a week, but she would brush it out, wash it - in the sink, not the shower - set it, sit under the dryer hood (the plastic cap kind with a hose and a blower unit that would burn your head if you weren't careful!) and then we'd rat her hair and she'd fix it. I say we because her arms got tired with all that ratting so it was a joint effort. She couldn't get her hair as high as the hairdresser could, but it was a fair job. True to her helmet hair, she'd spray, and spray, and spray some more until the air was thick and flammable. Because back then, hairspray was very flammable and we made a sizeable contribution to the depleted ozone layer that day and every day. Even as style changed around her Mom's hair never did. She had her hair way and her way alone. I guess that's why she follower her hairdresser. After I was married, I'd visit Mom often, making a point to go on her hair day. Sometimes I'd get my hair done too mostly because Mom paid for it, but really because there is just something about getting your hair done together. I remember going with Mom one Thursday and her regular guy was not available so one of the available girls had to do her hair. Mom was clear about what she wanted. Nevertheless, she left very dissatisfied because the bangs were wrong and fixed it as soon as we got to the car. We enjoyed the rest of the day together with lunch and shopping, but she just wasn't herself without her hair being right. Mom's hair was a throwback style and she was set (pardon the pun) in her ways where it was concerned. She never experimented, and with the exception of blonde hair in the sixties and frosted hair in the early seventies, she wore it natural colored until it went gray.

I find myself thinking of Mom every time I go to the beauty parlor with Ione. It's like some weird time warp when you walk through the door. The salon itself is decorated modern for the most part until you look at the wall lined with hood dryers and notice the baskets of rollers and clips. We arrive early by 8:15 and the shop is quiet save for Millie who gets there at 7:45 to beat the rush. By 8:30 after Ione has been shampooed and waits to get rolled up, things start hopping. Now it's Millie, Ione, Norma, Pat, June, Carol, and three other ladies I can't for the life of me remember the names of! They come in one by one chatting and yacking shouting shrill hellos taking a seat like it's home. It's so much more than just Friday at the beauty parlor. It's life. It's everything from did you hear about so and so's hip surgery to can you believe so and so said this, how about tea at my house, I love that blouse, to how are the great-grand-kids, and this and that! All the time Pat the hairdresser never loses a beat yacking along, rolling and clipping those baby fine strands of permed, bleached, tinted, graying, blueing and thinning hair. It's like a beautiful dance, but one very few know the steps to anymore. I doubt they teach it in beauty school (excuse me, Cosmetology). Unlike a barber shop, because there will always be men with crew cuts and flat tops in every generation, this dance will not survive the next generation. Its place is no longer relavent in modern society. Unlike skirt lengths, a coiffed hairdo will not come back full circle. It's a generational thing, like bridge club or cocktail parties, political correctness out the window, just the sweetness of relationships that have existed in most cases since the second world war. Ladies who have grown up together in the same town, marrying young, raising children, watching friends and family die along the way and still clinging to Fridays at the beauty parlor because it's the one thing that stays constant amid the chaos and the reality of aging. It will die along with its representatives and the hairdressers committed to preserving their love of coiffure.

As I watch, waiting for Ione's turn in the chair, Millie, checks her hair under the hood and begins to remove the rollers placing them in the basket sitting next to her. Like Mom brushing out her end of the week hair, Millie and every other lady in turn under their respective dryers, does what Pat could easily do but does for her in practised rhythm. With each curl crispy along her scalp like a barrister's wig, she turns her dryer off and back to her outdated magazine to wait for her turn, glancing up to comment on the conversation happening down the row that can't possibly be heard under dryer hoods and hearing aids but happens nonetheless. When Millie's turn comes, I watch mezmerized as Pat tenderly brushes out each curl then rats with practiced precision, spraying it and brushing it out of the way in order to rat the next one. Her hair, now a mess of organized chaos, is transformed as Pat positions each curl forming her bright blonde hair into a perfect sculpture of hair and spray. Stepping back she takes the wire pick and moves a piece here and a curl there until nothing is out of place, spraying the whole creation again until a halo of Aqua Net surrounds the two of them. With a pat on the back, Millie's transformation is complete and she slowly stands up, a few inches taller than she came in. Whether it's the pride of a new coif like a poodle with a new do, or the comfort of clean, fresh hair, it's obvious that there is much more to this weekly ritual than just getting her hair done. It's a generational thing. Something I can only observe, never truly relate to. It's a thing shared by women of this era that we can never hope to understand being transient in our lives and too busy to stop once a week to visit the "parlor". For these ladies, it's life; a constant. Those who can't get there on their own are brought in, wheeled in, or helped in by spouses, friends, or caregivers like myself keeping to their time-honored appointment that will never change, and certainly never be cancelled until eternity comes. Perhaps the only ones who can relate to this are ironically men of the same generation lining the walls of the barber shop in their own time-honored dance minus the pins, curlers, wives, and dryers, but alive in their own right once a week with their own stories to tell.

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