chocolate is a verb

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Tag Archives: hair

found poem: the spoils

found poem: I’m always

what we save

Dorothy hair and flowersIn my mother’s baby book — blue, with padded covers and thick, creamy paper — her mother’s notations say more about Elsie (my grandmother) than they do about Dorothy, who followed a much-favored firstborn son. There are some photos, a few notes about first teeth, first words and childhood illnesses, and, most tellingly, long lists of presents given at her birth (including silk quilt, silver spoon, French bib, silver napkin ring), her first birthday (embroidered pillow case, gold pins & two pair bonnet strings, bottle whiskey) and her second birthday (pink wristlets, silk stockings, Irish lace hood and blue silk kimono).

Where Elsie’s notes trail off, Dorothy saved what was important to her: letters from her father, whose insurance sales kept him on the road, and several newspaper clippings about a performance of a Red Riding Hood operetta by the Bluebells, when Dorothy was 8. A cluster of dried flowers is accompanied by a note in Dorothy’s hand, “My graduation flowers from 8th grade at Hartford. I was the valedictorian.” She was also Literary Editor of the school newsletter, The Hartford Crier, and a number of copies are folded into the book.

I turn the pages, mostly blank, and look at the photos. Then I find two bits of folded paper I’ve never noticed before: a scrap of newspaper with Elsie’s penciled “Baby hair” and another, tissue, possibly 1916 toilet paper, that says “5 years.”

As I unfold these fragile bits of paper, the hair on my arms stands up. A century after they were clipped from my mother’s head, these hanks of strawberry blond hair still contain her essence. The hair is fine and much less curly than Dorothy’s would become later in life (and much less curly than mine). It’s beautiful and soft, glossy and drenched in an innocence that squeezes my heart.

being 11…

jik at 11In my most awkward adolescence, my mother took me to a barber to have my hair cut. Granted, a very fine barber, but a barber nonetheless, who cropped my hair to an inch-long boyish cut and threatened that I would never be able to grow it long because it was so curly.

The barber was housed at Bullock’s Wilshire, the Art Deco flagship of the Bullock’s department stores in Los Angeles. It was perhaps 15 miles from our house and even then, when the full impact of L.A. traffic was still in the future, the drive was an outing.

Dorothy would deposit me in the barber’s chair and vanish into the fragrant elegance of women’s wear. Sometime later, when I was clipped and combed, she would reappear with a Bullock’s bag on her arm and that would be that.

I was 11 and I didn’t question any of it — not the barber or his wisdom, not the haircut or the lengthy drive. It was simply my reality.

About a mile from our house was a sister store, Bullock’s Westwood. I could walk to Westwood, and often did, escaping my mother, meeting girlfriends and searching, somewhat aimlessly, for something I could not yet identify. Inevitably, I would find myself wandering through Bullock’s, a place that was safe and familiar but also a sort of treasure chest to fuel adolescent fantasies.

Behind cosmetics, not far from the elevators, was the Notions department, which housed sewing supplies — thread and ribbon and rickrack — along with a wealth of other temptations that didn’t fit neatly into any other department.

One day, approaching Notions, I discovered a new display: a woman was standing at a special counter making hairpieces. Clamped to her counter she had yard-long hanks of hair in every hue from white-blond to purple-black. To match a customer’s hair, she would start with a color that was close, then pull a few strands from a dozen or more other colors, slowly combing them together until she had an exact blend.

This was fascinating to me. I was startled to learn that brown hair wasn’t just brown, that what was called black hair wasn’t true black and, not least, I was envious of the long, straight plaits and chignons and the customers who were able to wear them.

I revisited the counter and watched the process any number of times. It wasn’t much later that I protested the barber and began my futile but long-lasting effort to turn my curls into ‘regular’ hair and, more significantly, to express the girl caught within my adolescent changeling self.