Say Farewell To Pin Curls

This balmy stretch from Easter until the end of school in June always reminds me of my mother messing around with my hair. Too often the kitchen smelled like the wallpaper was being chemically removed because of the fumes from Tonette, the home permanent for little girls. Afterward my head looked perpetually surprised. The thick straight bangs belied the ebullient frizz on either side, so that my face was a window with a flat shade and ruffled cafe curtains. We all had bangs then, so that our hair would not be in our faces, a habitual complaint by the mothers and the nuns. When my hair was in my face my mother referred to me as Veronica Lake.

Easter, May procession, class pictures, graduation. Pin curls, braids, ribbons, rollers. There exists not a single photo of significance from my childhood that shows my head as it was in nature. Occasionally the day was warm or wet enough to cause the phony curl to release before the end of the afternoon. This is why I look more or less normal in first-communion photographs, except for the veil and the hands prayerfully folded. Sitting here today I can re-create in my mind the sensation of bobby pins poking my scalp, the way sleeping on rollers feels like having a shoe box for a pillow. We were groomed then like baby beauty queens.

This is no longer my life, not as a person, not as a parent. I messed with my children's hair only when they were babies, to cut the boys' curls--they cried, I cried--and to secure the weirdly overweening topknot my daughter had for her first year. Still reeling from the counterculture internecine warfare of the late 1960s, I made a deal with myself: no fighting over clothes and hair. (I reserve the right to go ballistic about tats and piercings.) "My hair like Jesus wore it/Hallelujah I adore it/Hallelujah Mary loved her son/Why don't my mother love me?" That was the title song from the first Broadway rock musical, and the question of the time. Fathers threatened to throw sons with ponytails out of the house. What was the point of that?

It is one measure of the loosey-goosey child rearing with which our parents sometimes reproach us--"I always let my babies cry themselves to sleep!"--that we have eliminated the barbershop as a battleground. In this way I have acquired a son with a mohawk. I do not like this, although apparently everyone else finds it flattering. Some middle-school boys even wrote a song about it. He has agreed to buzz it back into a more conventional hairstyle in time for the prom.

The prom was the last time I remember letting my mother mess around with my hair. She created a braided bun woven with costume-jewelry pearls and was moved to tears by her skill and my altered appearance. I was luckier than those of my classmates who'd gone to the beauty parlor and came out with immense helmet-hair updos, looking like a cross between the bride and her own grandmother. For graduation my hair hung naturally, long and straight, in my face as I stepped to the podium. I cut it all off three weeks after my mother died, an act not of fashion but of self-abnegation. For a time all my brothers had hair longer than mine. It drove our father nuts.

It occurred to me, looking at mohawk man and his equally unfettered siblings--two atheists, two vegetarians, three writers, three actors, one jock, and all in just three humans!--that there was a sad point to all that sectioning and spraying my mother did. She was trying to ease me, from the head down, into a life of masquerade. A quiet soul who had somehow found herself with a daughter so extroverted that it could be counted as a clinical diagnosis, she must have understood that conformity was my inevitable uncomfortable fate. The conventions of so-called femininity were every bit as rigid, as painful and as false as those manic ringlets that made a brave show until they fell of their own weight. My mother could not have envisioned a future free of girdles and garter belts, deference and duty, permanent waves and teasing combs, a future of freedom. But that future was foretold in those boys who let their hair fall to their shoulders, the world according to the Kinks: "Girls will be boys and boys will be girls, it's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world."

I don't know that it's necessarily easier to take freedom as your birthright, to think if someone looks twice at the cockscomb of hair sprouting above the shaved sides that it's their problem, dude. There are still standards. They are simply looser ones. And there's a tyranny of freedom, too, so that nonconformism becomes the new conformity. But I think this is the better way; a tie, it has always seemed to me, is nothing but a noose with a pleasing pattern. My daughter and her girlfriends all have this trick of making an impromptu bun with their long hair, quick as a wink, and it looks beautiful and unstudied (unsprayed!) and not at all as though they are trying to be miniature adults, which is how I look in so many of those pictures. My boys do their own buzz cuts with clippers they keep in the bathroom. The irony is that I wish they'd let their hair grow longer. But I try to keep my mouth shut. The hair wars, thank God, are over.