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A Permanent Memory

Early home perms were not for the faint of heart

When I was young, our family was poor, but I suppose I always thought we were rich. If not rich, then certainly my two sisters and I were beautiful. Daddy always said so, until our hair grew a little long and reverted to its natural state of straight-as-a-board. However, I do need to edit that last statement. My little sister had naturally curly hair, so she never suffered through a Toni home permanent.

“Honeybunch,” Daddy would say to Mother, “you need to cut and curl these girls’ hair, so they’ll be real pretty.”

Mother was in her glory when she cut and curled someone’s hair. Since she had only two of us at home who needed to be “fixed up,” she recruited other young ladies to be her subjects for free. All they had to do was buy the permanent ingredients. This was a generous act on my mother’s part, but I did not realize that until I became older.

I remember the caustic, overwhelmingly odoriferous liquids involved in the home permanents, which always took place in the kitchen on a Saturday. There also would be the wonderful aroma of pinto beans and ham bubbling and simmering in a pressure cooker.

The pressure cooker scared me to death. A gauge sitting on top displayed the rising pressure numbers, and the gauge would jiggle back and forth as the pressure built, rattling faster and faster to match the intense boiling of the beans. Alongside the gauge was a little rubber stopper, which served as a safety valve in case too much pressure built up.

Mother would say, “Now, you girls help me watch that gauge. We don’t want that lid to blow off.” I watched, but from a vantage point well across the room and near a door, in case I needed to escape.

One Saturday, my older sister’s friend arrived to have a home permanent. First, Mother began cooking the beans slowly without the lid on the pressure cooker. Then Mother brought out her arsenal of curling rods, the little squares of paper, cotton balls, towels, metal clips that often caught the scalp with the sectioned-off hair, and a rattail comb.

The girl washed her hair in preparation for the rolling process. Then she sat at the table, wrapped a towel around her shoulders and combed her wet hair straight back. While she was doing this, Mother put the lid on the pressure cooker—but failed to turn it that last fraction to lock it. She turned up the burner but forgot to remind any of us to help watch the gauge.

Mother rolled the hair in her speedy, practiced way. She poured part of the developer, the one that smelled like rotten eggs, into a small bowl and began dabbing the solution on the girl’s hair. All the while, Mother, the visitor and my sister chatted, laughed and completely forgot about the pressure cooker.

I was playing dolls with my little sister in the front room when I heard a mighty hiss, a scary rumbling, then a loud boom! Terrified, I peeked around the corner. Hot beans, juice and bits of ham plastered the kitchen and everyone in the room. Mixed in with the curling rods and developer on the poor girl’s head was our supper.

There were a few mild burns, but no one was seriously hurt. For the remainder of the day, we cleaned away beans, juice and ham. However, the girl’s hair stayed rolled and soaked with the developing solution. Hours later, when someone remembered, Mom applied the neutralizer, but it was too late. Her hair was ruined—frizzed and burned like yellow steel wool.

Did this adventure deter my mother from curling hair, or using her beloved pressure cooker? No, it did not. It only gave her a story to tell and laugh about every time a visitor or one of us had a Toni or a Lilt home permanent.

People in our South Plains town remember my mother for the exploding beans episode. Others remember the times she made soup for the sick, visited the lonely, and combed and curled the hair of an elderly shut-in.

I was always very proud of her. She was beautiful, in my eyes, with her thick, black hair—always curled—dark eyes, red lips and joyous laugh. She never received a medal, award or crown, so, what made her so special, a hero to me? She never lagged in her motherly love and responsibility to keep us in pretty, handmade dresses, polished white high-topped shoes, and with curled and combed hair. She pinched pennies so we could always be “turned out,” as people said. “Look at those Davis girls. They always look like a new dime, all dressed up, pretty as a picture and clean as a whistle.” What child could ask for more?

Celia Yeary, a retired schoolteacher, is a member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative. She recently sold a historical romance novel to The Wild Rose Press.