My daddy was a Southener, raised in the Carolinas. Folks say I get my charm from him. My mom was a French Canadian farm girl from Northern Ontario who wanted to be a nun but left home at nineteen and wound up working in New York City.
Those were the days of sit-ins and marches, speeches and rallies. The time when the world discovered a place called Topeka, Kansas and holy men of colour lifted their voices, lifted their fists, set a nation on its ear and a farm girl got swept up in the twister.
I was born in the Bronx in the late 1950s. Though I haven’t been there in years, I still remember many things. For the first years of my life we lived in an apartment in the projects. I think that was on Westchester but I’m not sure. Anyway, Westchester sticks out in my mind. We had an apartment on the 17th floor and had to ride an elevator that always smelled like pee.
Mom had one of those grocery baskets you can pull behind you and I was small enough to stand up in it and ride to the grocery store for the weekly shopping. If I behaved, mom would buy me a lolipop for being a good helper and I always asked for a second one to give to the little girl who lived down the hall. I can’t remember that girl’s real name but her mamma called her “Chicken” so I did too.
Chicken had lots of little braids sticking out of her head with tiny plastic barretts clipped on the ends. Some were little white ducks and others were pink bunnies. Her mamma did my hair like that once. I remember her putting this greasy stuff in my hair then pulling it really hard with a comb. This new hair-do didn’t last long because the little braids bugged me as they kept whipping me in the ears.
So my mom kept my hair in pigtails. She said that was the only way to keep my hair under control. I guess I was pretty young when I became aware of the fact that I had problem hair. What the problem was, I wasn’t quite sure but I remember my mom seeking the advice of her friends about it.
One day one of her friends came over to help with my problem hair. They put olive oil in it and rubbed it down to my scalp until I thought they’d rub all the hair off too. After I sat like that for awhile, they stuck my head in the kitchen sink and shampooed all of it out. That didn’t make sense to me. Why put the oil in there in the first place if they were just gonna wash it all away? After I had been shampooed and cream rinsed, they worked in about half a tube of V05, then just about ripped the hair from my head trying to get all the tangles out. In the end, I still had pigtails.
I think we lived in the projects until I was about five. Around that time we moved to a big house with a veranda on East 222nd St. I’ll never forget the day my mom’s friend, Mary Nell, came to help mom do my hair. I didn’t particularly want to have my hair done that day. I was quite content with my pigtails, and besides, a kid has a lot more to do on a summer day than to sit around and be tormented by grownups.
I was inveigled to cooperate by being told that once they were done, I would have beautiful straight hair like the lady in the Prel commercial. I was always partial to magic tricks and couldn’t resist sticking around to see Aunt Mary Nell transform my nappy head to silken tresses.
After a careful examination of my unruly mop, a cup of Chock Full O’ Nuts and a slice of Sara Lee that mom bought especially for the occasion, the initial assessment had been confirmed – I’d have to get it processed. I had no idea what they were talking about but I soon learned what a process was.
With me planted on a stool in the middle of the kitchen, Mary Nell proceeded to mix up a foul smelling concoction that was a little bit thicker than the runny icing they drizzle over coffee cake. Painfully my hair was parted and the creamy mixture applied to each section of my head from roots to ends.
In about five minutes my scalp began to burn and I started to cry. But relief was another five minutes away for each section of my hair needed to be combed until straight. Well, it straightened my hair alright; it was like a corn broom and just as brittle.For several weeks after I was picking the scabs that formed along my hairline where the lye mixture had burnt my skin.
I think I was still picking those scabs when I started at my new school, Our Lady of Grace. We had nuns for teachers but the priests came in every week to teach us catechism. They said, “As the twig is bent, so leans the tree”. I took that up as a personal challenge and with my never ending questioning was constantly told that my soul was in mortal danger.
One really good thing about going to a Catholic school was that we used to get sent home early on Wednesdays so that the poor unfortunate Protestant kids in the neighbourhood could get religious instruction. As good Catholic children we didn’t mind giving up a half day of school for the Protestants – after all, it was to save their mortal soul.
Occasionally our classes were interrupted by drills. We had fire drills like all schools do but we also had air raid drills. The nuns seemed to be working with something called the Civil Defense. They told us that the ungodly Communists might drop atomic bombs on us and that we had to prepare for that. I wasn’t sure what a Communist was, but if they were ungodly, they were probably Protestants.
I remember crouching under my school desk until we got a signal then being marched around the corner to the church cellar. The classes that were the quickest and quietest were rewarded with scapulars or holy pictures. Is there a patron saint against radioactivity? They told us that radioactivity would make all of our hair fall out. That’s what I thought they meant by fallout and although I didn’t want to be bald, to me that wasn’t so bad. Maybe I’d grow in the good stuff.