It's funny how a simple scent can be so intrinsically tied to a memory that it has the power to instantly take you back to a moment in time as if it happened just yesterday. When you catch a whiff, you're helpless to stop the flood of memories from crashing in.
I was walking out of Walmart with my three kids and a full cart when we passed by the hair salon. Suddenly, the violent and distinct smell of...well.... Ammonium Thioglycolate (to be exact).... attacked our nostrils and my kids said, "Eeeewww, what's that horrible smell?"
I chuckled a knowing laugh and said, "Kids, that's the smell of someone getting their hair permed."
Then the memories came rolling in....
When I was a young girl, my mom had waist long, pin-straight hair parted right down the middle. She was, after all, a teenager in the seventies. During the week, she kept her hair in barrettes with a long braid down her back to keep it out of her face while doing housework. But Sunday mornings were special. Every Sunday morning she would use hot rollers before church and sit under the ceiling fan to let them cool. When she took them out, her beautiful long hair had springy curls on the tips and she wore it down, tucked softly behind one ear. I thought she had the most beautiful hair in the world.
A few years later her best friend convinced her it was time to "update" her style, get with the times, and be fashion forward. Oh yes, and her best friend also happened to be a part-time hair dresser who had a little salon in her house. My mom walked in to the beauty parlor with gorgeous long hair and came home with some sort of permed eighties doo with bangs. We were all in shock. She cried for a week.
She really formed an attachment to her crowning glory. When it was gone, she had to grieve the loss of her long tendrils. From that point on, her hair styles changed with the times, but she decided that she loved having a perm. She called it a "Body Wave". Whether using a curling iron or hot rollers, her curls would last all day with that "Body Wave Perm" in her hair.
Always the frugal one in the family, Mom didn't like to spend money on herself. To save a few bucks, she bought those Ogilvie Home Perms and my grandma would dutifully do her hair every few months. When I was in sixth grade, Grandma lost her fight with Breast Cancer and my mother not only lost her parent, but also her hair stylist. One day shortly after Grandma's passing, Mom was having a frustratingly bad hair day and she turned to me in desperation, "Nell, I need you to give me a perm."
I was 12, I was terrified, and I was completely un-qualified to become my mother's hairstylist! Looking back, I'm not sure why on earth she trusted me with such a monumental responsibility. She had much more faith in my abilities than I had in myself. That's for sure!
Mom got out all of the supplies and sat in a chair in the middle of the kitchen. Then we literally bowed our heads and prayed to God that her perm would turn out well. Looking back, maybe she was a little nervous about my abilities. I began my trial by fire. I parted the hair in sections, following the detailed mannequin illustrations from the perming guide included in the box. Then I began to roll the wet hair methodically like a surgeon. Mother was my lovely assistant. I'd section off a small piece of hair and call out, "Paper" and she'd give me a tiny square of tissue paper to put at the tip of the hair. "Roller", was my next request. This went on for a few rows, all the while she was checking my work with a hand- held mirror. After each section I'd use a spray bottle to keep the hair moist.
When her whole head was in curlers, I applied the cotton strand around her hairline. Next, I mixed two vials of chemicals to form a potion like a chemist. As I shook the bottle and proceeded to squeeze the perming solution onto each curl, my eyes began to sting and water from exposure to the toxic fumes. That stuff couldn't have been healthy. Mom would try to hold her breath because the smell was so overwhelming. Between gasps of air, she'd say, "Be careful to saturate every curl. Don't miss anything." Then she'd tuck her face back into an old towel until the torture was complete.
We set the timer for the 30 minute "Hard-to-perm" recommendation on the box. Then, inevitably, my dad would walk in the house with his nose scrunched and a snarled upper lip. "What's that ghastly smell?" he'd ask, as if he didn't know exactly what we were doing. We moved the make-shift salon to the back-yard for ventilation purposes until the timer went off. From that point the directions were followed precisely. Rinse, apply neutralizer, wait 5 minutes, take out the curling rods and papers, massage the neutralizer into the scalp, rinse again. Apply post-perm conditioning packet, dry with a fresh towel. Done.
It was the moment of truth. My mother removed the towel and stood in front of the mirror for the big reveal. Miracle of all miracles, it turned out fabulous!!! This day marked the beginning of my long career as Mom's personal hair stylist. Every three months, for the rest of her life, I gave her a body wave.
Over the years our client/stylist relationship changed. As I matured, she began to trust me more. She retired the old hand-held mirror and just allowed me to work my magic on her locks. We would use those two hours to talk about everything and nothing, and the time seemed to fly by. Through the Junior High years, she peppered me with questions about friendships, and baby sitting. When I got to high school, the conversation changed to boys, and crushes, and my waitress job.
There were times as a teenager that I dreaded doing her hair. I would roll my eyes when she told me it was time for her to make an "appointment" with me. She practically had to bribe me for her quarterly perm. She went to the salon for a cut and color, and I could never understand why she wouldn't just get the body wave done there, but she insisted that I was the only one who knew how to do it right. Looking back, I think she was just wanting to spend time with me during those tumultuous teenage years.
During college, she would send me gas money in an envelope so I could make the drive home to do her hair. When I was living on a ranch in Colorado, she made the eight hour road-trip to see me with a box of Ogilvie and perming rods in her suitcase. We would stay up late talking about the future, and heart-break, and love in that creaky, mouse- infested ranch house.
After my wedding, I moved 3 1/2 hours away. Our hair appointments continued with a few small glitches. Each time I was pregnant, she was forced to go to a salon for her perms, but she would always come back to me post- baby. I began to use her quarterly perming needs as leverage for her to come up and visit me. I'd tell her that if she made the drive up the mountain, I'd be sure to block off some salon time in my schedule. She always took the bait. Then the tides turned. I began to interrogate her with questions about marriage, and parenting, and God. I soaked up every drop of wisdom she offered me and I treasured every single second that I had her undivided attention. Oh, how I miss those days.
I permed my mom's hair for 22 wonderful years.
What I wouldn't give to have just one more salon appointment in the kitchen with her.
.....It really is funny how a drifting smell can bring back such a flood of fond memories.