On Valentine’s Day, 19 something or other, my mother gave birth to me. A nurse wrapped me in a pink baby blanket and brought me to Mama who took one look and began to cry. The nurse quickly chalked it up to postpartum depression, so she was unprepared for what happened next.
“I don’t know whose baby this is, but it’s NOT mine,” Mama wailed. “Take her back and bring me MY baby.”
“Mrs. Hall,” the nurse insisted, “this IS your baby.”
Mama took another look and shook her head. “There is simply no way I gave birth to a child this ugly. Take her back. Now.”
I don’t know who convinced Mama otherwise, but I went home with her and soon after, she decided to turn me into a Shirley Temple doppelganger. She often recited the tale of my first day on earth while attempting to transform me into Shirley.
She sang, whistled and hummed, “Animal Crackers in My Soup” while spooning oatmeal into my toothless mouth. She put bubblebath in my bath water while loudly singing, “The Good Ship Lollipop” off-key. My first three words were sung in the key of F-sharp.
On my seventh birthday, instead of a new doll she gave me a Toni Home Permanent. Mama said Shirley didn’t play with dolls; Mama said Shirley had curls. Ringlets. And since Shirley was the holy grail of seven-year-old girls and their mothers, she was determined to put enough ringlets in my hair to make my head bounce like a slinky.
She plopped me down in the bathroom one morning to begin the arduous work of transformation while the radio was broadcasting her favorite soap opera, “This Is Nora Drake.” Since the Toni Company sponsored the Nurse Nora series, I’m pretty sure she figured that meant it was perfectly fine to saturate my virgin hair with chemicals.
Home perms were the rage at that time because they had just come on the market and they were cheap. Instead of paying $15 for a professional perm, the frugal housewife could have curls for $2. It was a no-brainer for Mama.
We didn’t have a big bathroom. Today’s closets are twice the size of the one in which I was held captive. The permanent wave solution smelled like rotten eggs and made my tonsils burn. But the stink was nothing compared to the tight curlers Mama used on me.
“Ow! Ow! That hurts,” I whined for the three hours it took her to wrap each strand of hair in my head for what she hoped would be transformed into sausage-like ringlets, Shirley-style.
“Pride knoweth no pain,” she quipped as though reciting the Ten Commandments. I had no idea what she was talking about. With Madam Makeover winding me up and nearly snatching me baldheaded, there was no way I could end up looking like the precocious tap dancing child star Mama was aiming for.
“All done,” she finally announced, grinning like she had discovered plutonium in the back yard and had subsequently been named Time Magazine's Woman of the Year.
When I looked at myself in the mirror Shirley Temple did not look back at me. The stringy blonde locks that had previously hung down to my shoulders like coils of dirty rope, were no longer there. I found not one ringlet either sausage-style, banana-style or Shirley-style.
Corkscrews sprang from my head in no particular direction, poking out harem scarem from here to Sunday as if each lock of hair had been forced into an electric socket till it sizzled.
I thought if Mama opened her mouth to sing “Animal Crackers in my Soup” or that stupid Lollipop ditty, I might become the first seven-year-old in history to commit matricide.
Daddy came home right about that time. He took a long look at me as if I were somebody else’s child, and then suggested to Mama that they might ought to take me to see Doctor Cone.
She spun around big as you please and looked him square in the eye. “She’s not sick. She’s my little Shirley Temple girl. Ittn’t she pretty?”
“Oh for gawd’s sake,” Daddy said before moseying on down to the kitchen to pour himself a stiff one.
As soon as the bell rang at school the next morning, Miss Dibble made an announcement.
“Today is school picture day, class,” she sang out. “Be sure to smile for the camera.”
To this day, I totally hate Toni Home Perms.