When I was young, our family was poor, but 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 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 permed someone’s hair. Since she only had two of us at home who needed to be “fixed up,” she recruited other girls and young ladies to be her subjects. All the time she spent on the process was absolutely free of charge, and it was a good thing, because few people had extra money to spend at a real beauty shop. All the person had to do was buy the permanent. This was a generous act on my mother’s part, but I did not realize that until I became older.
Mother became very popular in our small town, located on the South Plains, where the wind blew, sandstorms roared through, and tornadoes were a common occurrence. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was the day when some female visited to have her hair curled by the caustic, overwhelmingly odorous liquids. Mother would bring out her arsenal of different sized 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 ritual of the permanent always took place in the kitchen and on a Saturday. For as long as I can remember, the wonderful aroma of pinto beans and ham bubbling and simmering in a large pot filled the house on that day. Then, like the advent of the home permanent, a new device for cooking appeared in the stores and the Sears catalog. Even though the five of us lived in a three-room stucco house with very little, Mother loved a new pot or pan for cooking, or canning, or roasting. So, when the pressure cooker was invented and the price was brought down so that even we could afford one, my mother became the proud owner of a large, shiny, very frightening pressure cooker. For the beans. On home permanent days.
The pressure cooker scared me to death. There was that gauge sitting on top, which displayed the rising pressure numbers, and the gauge would jiggle back and forth as the pressure built, rattling faster and faster to match the immense boiling and bubbling of the beans. Alongside the gauge was a little rubber stopper, which served as a safety valve, in case too much pressure built and somehow must escape.
Mother would say, “Now, you girls help me watch that gauge. We don’t want that lid to blow off.” Well, 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. Mother loved this activity, mainly because it broke the boredom of living in a small town with no money for entertainment. Daddy made certain he had business elsewhere, when he knew there would be five females in the tiny house all day.
First, Mother began cooking the beans slowly without the lid on the pressure cooker. She laid out all the necessary implements of the home permanent on the table. The girl had washed her hair in readiness of the rolling process, so, she sat at the table, wrapped the 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 one last fraction to lock it. She adjusted 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 sort of 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, and a scary rumbling, and then a loud boom! Mother screamed and dropped the bowl of developer down the girl’s neck, the girl screeched and jumped up so violently that she knocked the chair over, and my older sister yelled and ran around with her hands in the air.
Terrified, I peeked around the corner to view a scene that could have been part of a Keystone Cops routine. Hot, exploded beans, juice, and bits of ham were all over the kitchen, as well as, everyone in the room. Mixed in with the curling rods and developer on the poor girl’s head was our supper.
No one was hurt, except for a few mild burns. With everyone working, we cleaned away beans, juice, and ham, even though it took the remainder of the day. Later, Daddy had to climb on a ladder to clean the ceiling. Mother could wash the clothes, so no harm, there.
However, the girl’s hair stayed rolled and soaked with the developing solution. Hours later, when someone remembered, Mother applied the neutralizer, but it was too late. She wore a headscarf for weeks to hide her ruined hair, frizzed and burned like yellow steel wool.
Did this adventure deter my mother from her passion for curling hair, or her use of the 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.
(Previously published in the Texas Power Co-op magazine under the title "A Permanent Memory"-by Celia Yeary