School Picture Day is the annual Fall occurrence of best wear and toothy smiles in schools across the country. My school’s Picture Day happens next week, and the event is stirring up fond memories of my mother preparing her children for that day.
Other than Easter Sunday, the Lowe Kids never looked better during our elementary school grades than we did on Picture Day. Mom would make sure we were wearing our neatest and nicest. And on the evening before the day, she would “press” the girls’ hair with the hot comb and use foam curlers to set the curls overnight. When we left for school, Mom had her little girls ready to stand before the camera, with a send-off of “Don’t let that cameraman touch your hair!”
Instead of listing the hair pressing process — where Mom would turn our hair from “nappy” to “straight,” as we described it — I will share an example of how I like to weave in my childhood throughout the stories that I write.
Following is from a scene from a children’s middle-grade novel that I eventually put aside. Here we find young Lena having her time in the pressing chair after she had experienced a tough morning with her peers. I set the story in the 1970s.
The pressing chair held a place of honor in Winnie’s kitchen. She had been the one to insist on having her mother’s chair there and not in the living room. Milly argued with her, but in the end, Winnie had her way. There was no resisting her explanation that Mother Eugenia would rather be sitting with the rest of them (“She’s still here in spirit”) than gathering dust in a room “nobody but the dog uses.”
Lena’s turn in the pressing chair came once a week, usually on Saturdays with the ending of lunch. After the morning’s disappointment, she was glad to be inside and out of view.
“Aunt Winnie’s not hurting you, now is she, Lena?”
“No.” Lena grimaced. Winnie’s strong hands combed and parted and braided her hair into sections. She scooped oil from the jar, rubbed her palms together, and smoothed it through the hair. “I’ll be about out of grease when I’m through with you. You going to the store today?”
“No, but Digger might. Or Mama. She said she’s out of her headache medicine.”
“Well, let me know.” Winnie refused to use chemicals in her hairstyling: “You ever read the ingredients on the box? And you want me to put that on your hair? Uh-uh. No way. Who you gonna come and yell at when your hair all falls out? Yeah. I thought so.”
Lena tried her best to keep her head still while Winnie worked, and she knew not to talk unless she was questioned. Pressing hair allowed Winnie to slip away, her mother told her. Back some forty years before Digger came along and put a stop to her dream.
The smoke hung in the kitchen like summer fog. Winnie lifted the comb from the burner and shook it for cooling before gliding the teeth through each hair section. Lena did her part during the tugs on her thick hair until Winnie’s insistence paid off, and the hair gave in. The mixture of hot iron and oil gave off an aroma that was only pleasant in its familiarity. But Lena didn’t mind the smell and the sizzling. For her, it was the means to a hopeful end.
Oh, the memories I have of hair pressing time. My mother used Bergamot, Hair-Rep, petroleum jelly, and various other types of “grease.” I remember them well, along with the burns on my forehead, neck, and ears. “Oops! Sorry, Dee Dee,” she’d say and carry on like it was no big deal. Later, my sisters and I would compare burns and scars to see who had endured the most. We knew that Mom didn’t mean any harm; it was just part of the hair pressing process.
The girl with ribbons and curls in the photo for this post? That is me in Kindergarten on Picture Day 1965.