“If you want to be beautiful you have to suffer.” This was my mother’s favourite maxim, regarding all of her five daughters’ aspirations to become the epitome of femininity beauty, maybe even the next Miss America. It was a difficult quest each of us was on, as the shape of beauty was constantly morphing due to influences from TV and movies, and wreaking havoc on our youthful insecurities. Our mother however, had decided years earlier which of Betty Grable’s hairstyles she would adopt as her own, and stuck with only slightly altered versions of it ever after. Marsha, Jeannie and I were still deep in the hypnotic thrall of Bert Parks singing “There she is Miss America’’ following one of the ABC Pageant broadcasts, (or whichever network we had picked up by turning the pipe that the antenna was attached to) when we finally persuaded Mom to enhance our natural God given beauty, chemically. It wasn’t a hard sell, after all, Mom was born in 1929, just a little more than eight years after one hundred thousand people came to the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to gawk as the first Miss America was draped in the American flag. Mom was an American herself from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and she even had Atlantic City souvenir photos of herself near that very same boardwalk to show that she had been there too.
Playing around with toxic chemicals was no big deal in my growing up years, when “chemical” wasn’t construed as the dirty word that it is today. Like many other kids at the time, we enjoyed playing with polyvinyl acetate dissolved in acetone, with ethyl alcohol thrown in for good measure. It was a special treat to open that package with the tube of amazing goop and its short straw inside. It launched us into a frenzy of amazingly creative play time, blowing lots and lots of noxious fume-exuding, but amazingly beautiful plastic bubbles! They were terrific for sticking in grape-like bunches to all of the mirrors in the house, or for positioning a special one to hang just so, out of one of your nostrils. Terrific for grossing out Mom. A bubble could even float around in your sister’s chocolate milk for awhile (but not in her cocoa!) Sometimes we were really creative with our jokes, but no lasting harm ever came of it.
Hmmm…where was I now? Sorry, sometimes for no apparent reason, I simply forget where I am going with a particular train of thought. Oh yes, it was about my mother’s philosophy of beauty— “If you want to be beautiful you have to suffer.”
Mom chose to make symbolic offerings at the shrine of Beauty; for all of her adult life until fairly recently. What she did to indicate her commitment was a ritual of lying down on a head full of wire brush curlers every other night; before they existed she used bobby pins instead. She would sit on the kitchen table, up close to the mirror, because at five feet tall she was too short to see herself properly otherwise. Then she would twist up a little section of her hair and twirl it round and round into a little pin wheel. Using two or three bobby pins, she would secure the curl in place, flat to her scalp. This she would repeat twenty or thirty times until her head looked like it was wrapped in a roll of barbed wire fence, poking out through her hairnet. When she combed her hair out gently the following morning, it was just the opposite of flat, with a kind of movie star oomph.
It was Mom’s compassionate nature that led her to send Dad to the drugstore to buy three Tony Home Permanent kits, to give us the beautiful curly- haired Shirley Temple look we were hoping for. She refused to put us through the same pin curl torture for every special occasion that she already endured on a more regular basis. So, let’s just be kind here, and not put any “Mommy Dearest” spin on it when I tell you that it was the most physically horrible thing that any of us had experienced up to that time. The ammonia and sulphur-like stench was so bad that we thought we were going to be asphyxiated, as we held wash cloths over our faces to keep the dangerous chemicals from dripping into our eyes. In all likelihood, any drips would have been washed out immediately anyway, we were all bawling so much. Jeannie had the worst time of it, being the youngest. As everything in our family seemed to be done in order of age, I’m sure the anxiety was building with every passing moment, to the point of sheer terror by the time Mom started on her hair.
The only time that was worse than that very first home perm, was when an aunt of ours kindly volunteered to endure all our blubbering in order to spare my mother’s sore hands, as Mom had a flare-up of her severe chronic eczema at the time. The only condition that our aunt put upon her offer to help was that we would have to sleep at her house overnight, as she wasn’t exactly sure what time she would get around to it, or when our hair would be finished. I can’t remember exactly how old I was at the time, but I know it was just old enough to be mortified at the prospect of having to share a bed with my boy cousin. He shall for the sake of his dignity remain nameless. Let us just refer to him as “Bed-wetter”. Until the middle of the night, while Marsha and our girl cousin snored away in the next room, Bed-wetter tortured me with tales of blood-sucking bats, and crazed dog packs. Terror! Then a screech owl began screeching in a tree near the house! More terror! At last, some time near morning, I finally fell asleep, just in time to roll over into a freezing cold puddle, completely soaking my pyjamas! Eeeew! Of course, Bedwetter said that it was me who wet the bed! but I knew better. I was so glad that the sun was finally rising, that I almost didn’t care. “If you want to be beautiful you have to suffer” Mom had always said, and she was right. At least I used to think so…
On September 2, 2011 my mother suffered a major medical crisis, a severe brain bleed that brought her very close to death. The doctors at University Hospital in London, Ontario were able to perform emergency brain surgery, and despite the magnitude of the bleed, she suffered no brain damage. This circumstance truly surprised the doctors, who told us afterwards that had we been a few minutes later getting her to the hospital she would definitely not have survived. After the surgery, Mom realized that her head had been shaved quite haphazardly and her scalp was full of staples. She was feeling so vulnerable that she could hardly bear to look at herself in the mirror. It was then that she came to realize, through the hugs, kisses, prayers and tears of her family, the truth in the saying: You don’t love a woman because she is beautiful; she is beautiful because you love her.