Wednesday, May 26, 2004


When I was in 5th grade, my mother decided to sign me up for 4-H. Actually, I think she was in cahoots with my aunt (her sister-in-law) because my cousin Debbie (same grade but nine months younger and I never let her forget it) got signed up, too. But this wasn't the kind of 4-H where you raised livestock, although there were plenty of kids in other parts of the county who did that. We lived in town (small as it was), so we were taught cooking and sewing (growing up as we did in the enlightened pre-feminist 60's.)

On Wednesday afternoons we'd head over to Ruth's house after school. She was our 4-H leader. Ruth was a stay-at-home mom with one young son. Her husband, Dale, owned a metal-working business; he built commercial fishing boats. They lived in what was then our town's lone housing development. I thought it was exotic to live in a house that looked exactly like a hundred others in the surrounding blocks. Their house was across the street from the Mormon church, although we didn't call it that. I remember it always being referred to as "the LDS Church" (for Latter Day Saints, a term I still don't understand the meaning of). I used to sit in Ruth's living room and look across the street at the Mormon church and wonder what went on in there. It was sort of a preoccupation--to wonder what went on inside all of the other churches in town. They all seemed mysterious to me. After all, if people were choosing to go to a church other than our Catholic one, it had to be because they wanted to do something different at their church. No one ever explained to me that they were all simply denominations of Christianity. I mean, it's not like our town had a synagogue or an ashram. For god's sake, we only had one black family in the COUNTY, so diversity of any type was not on display.

I can't recall if we spent alternate weeks learning cooking and sewing during our 4-H classes, or if each session held a little of each. My mother had begun teaching me to do a little of both when I was about four years old, so I felt quite advanced for the beginning level of the classes. One of our first sewing projects was to make tiny pillows out of two matching washcloths and embellish them with rick-rack. (Do they even make rick-rack anymore?) My "pillow" was blue with gold rick-rack. Painful.

My cousin Debbie and I took 4-H with Ruth for four years. During that time, we saw a handful of girls come and go. A few were from our Catholic school, but there was also Polly, a public school girl who lived next door to Ruth. And because she attended public school, she seemed exotic, too. Although how exotic can you be when you're 10 and your name is Polly and you have a dramatic overbite? (In high school, she switched to Paula.)

The big tests for us each year came in two arenas. For cooking, we entered baked goods in the county fair each August. I'm proud to report that both Debbie and I accumulated quite a collection of blue ribbons over the years. (Impressive if you don't factor in the Mayberry-like size of our town.) For sewing participants, there was an annual 4-H fashion show. And just putting those words together (4-H + fashion show) should give you an idea of how glamorous this event was.

Let me digress a bit. My mother was our town's first beauty queen. And although she had relinquished her crown decades before, she held firmly to her vision of herself as the county's most glamorous woman. A tough task, given that the population leaned more heavily toward the livestock end than the glamour end of the spectrum. Still, she looked for any opportunity to glam things up.

My first year in 4-H, Sonny and Cher released a movie. I can remember sitting in the front row of the Pic Theatre with a neighbor girl watching it at a matinee and being in awe of Cher and her wardrobe. The bell-bottoms! The fake-fur vests! She was my fashion idol. An idolatry that had to play out entirely in my head since I had to wear a hideously ugly red plaid wool jumper to school every day. But when it came time to go to the department store to pick out a pattern to make an outfit for the 4-H fashion show, there was no doubt in my mind that bell-bottoms were going to be included.

My mother accompanied me to the department store. She was an accomplished seamstress. We picked out a pattern for bell-bottoms and then my mother selected a pattern for a top that was collar-less, buttoned in the back and had 3/4-length bell-like sleeves. (I've only recently begun to wear 3/4-length sleeves without the assistance of therapy.) She also selected the fabric. She chose a thick hot pink (think Pepto-Bismol) cotton for the bell-bottoms and a hot pink/white print for the top. And in an effort to jazz up the ensemble, she decided that we'd add a strip of the print fabric along the bottom of the bell-bottoms and make the sleeves of the top out of the solid pink with a strip of the print at the bottom of the sleeves, mirroring the pants. There's more.

My mother always had her hair done at Lola's Beauty Nook. The name should tell you everything. It was across the street from my Catholic school and I used to stare distractedly out the window during religion class and watch women come and go in and out of Lola's. It was the mid-60's and the styles in those days involved lots of teasing and back-combing and copious amounts of hairspray.

The day of the 4-H fashion show, my mother took me to Lola's to have my hair done. I was 10. I had a Prince Valiant haircut (which I hated). I wore white cat-eye glasses. (Oh yeah, retro NOW. Then? Just hideous.) What could they possibly do to me? I was soon to find out. I emerged an hour or so later with a giant dark brown hair helmut, with a hot-pink bow bobby-pinned to one side of my head. I wanted to cry. And worst of all, they had teased my bangs to the point of non-existence. And unless you're a skinny 10-year-old with cat-eye glasses and a high forehead, you can't begin to understand the trauma that caused.

But, wait, there's more. My mother had found a way to be the fashion show commentator--a job she took quite seriously. Fashion Week in New York? They've got nothing on my Mom. It didn't matter that we were in the multi-purpose room of a grade school at an event attended only by a bunch of dorky little girls and their mothers. She went to great lengths to write magazine-worthy commentary for each little girl's outfit.

Try to envision my entire look: huge brown hair helmut teased at least two inches higher than my scalp and adorned with a hot pink bow, non-existent bangs exposing high forehead and emphasizing white cat-eye glasses, a hideous hot pink print top with dorky 3/4 length bell sleeves topping Pepto Bismol-like bell-bottoms that were at least three inches above my white Keds. As I made my entrance on the stage, I heard my mother say into the mike, "And here's Marilyn, who's all ready for those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer..." and wished that the earth would please just open up and swallow me forever.

That's all really just a long-winded way of saying that I had my hair done after work yesterday. And whenever I have a plesant experience at a salon, I'm always grateful that I'll never again have to grace the threshold of Lola's Beauty Nook.


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