Catching a man couldn’t begin too early in the South. Not that mamas coached their babies in helpless sighs, arch glances, and pretty pouts. Those charms came naturally—at least for a few girls who budded early, their hot-pink and lime-green dresses giving the dusty playground a lush look. Their hair, parted precisely in the middle, rippled long and shiny, especially the blond manes. As these little lovelies turned jump ropes, their wrists flashed their steady boyfriends’ silver ID bracelets.
I sighed at the mirror every morning and afternoon. After a particularly sweaty gym class in sixth grade, it dawned on me to wash my hair every other day. That reduced my mildly greasy geek look. The bottle-cap granny glasses did not flatter.
On sunny days, my long, black hair was a fluffy cloud sprouting from a mass of cowlicks. Years later, my rather fetching French hair designer (fashionably fresh from France) declared, “Ah, Cah-tr-r-r-e-e-e-n, what cow-leeks yew ahv!” Was he saying I was a vegetable head? (For the record, he now speaks English like a diplomat.)
Humidity? Imagine Cousin Itt sticking one of Uncle Fester’s lightbulbs in his invisible mouth and shocking the hair from the roots. I was a rather sparky miss. How I longed for the elegant Morticia Addams’ tresses.
(In high school, I learned the trick of rolling my hair with four large orange juice cans atop my head so it would straighten. All the girls did. My father probably shook his head, thinking he was bankrolling the citrus industry in Florida.)
Until age fourteen, puberty bypassed me except for a sprinkle of acne on the infamous “T” zone. On the first day of junior high, I discovered something was afoot when I slid onto the warm backseat of Mrs. M’s green convertible: my eyes riveted on two pairs of smartly buckled navy blue shoes with heels. Their owners squealed as if they hadn’t seen me since Pompeii fell to the volcano.
“Hey, Ca-a-a-thy! How’s it going?”
“Your skirt is so-o-o cute.” (Actually, an old hand-me-down that I had desperately rolled up at the waist three times to hit a modest mini length.)
“Love those beads.” (Yes, my mother had permitted that purchase at the local five-and-dime.)
“And that peasant blouse!” (My sister Mary’s discard.)
The most sophisticated passengers glossed their lips with strawberry or peach-scented glazes that mingled with airy perfume. No wonder Mrs. M cracked the window of her marvelous green convertible showboat in winter. On sunny days, she took the top down to blow away five girls’ unharmonious scents. Ah, Mrs. M. She was cool. Red hair, Jackie O sunglasses. My mother drove a nondescript Pontiac wagon, dinged by blue hairs riding high (on telephone books) in their monster sedans as they backed in and out of the local “Pig” (aka Piggly Wiggly) parking lot. Mom didn’t care. She was in too much of a hurry for one of her cherished weekly outings: the big recipe swap with Aurelia, the Pig’s most beloved cashier.
Mrs. M’s kitchen was a thrill to behold. A metal staircase spiraled upstairs. Her master-master bedroom boasted a king-size bed whereas my parents still crammed themselves into a double. Their bedroom did not have a walk-in closet. We never experienced the pleasure of watching the NBC peacock bloom in living color until my great uncle―a cultivated, old-style colonel living in the foreign land of La Jolla, California―bequeathed his futuristic TV + hi-fi. Until then, I thought my family quite evolved, as my father had installed a laundry chute and an intercom system through which he barked early a.m. rise-and-shine orders: “All hands on deck! All hands on deck!” (Or something to that effect.) My mother managed to sabotage when he went out of town.
Evidently, I had missed Teen Talk 101 over the summer. Between giggles, the carpool chatter was littered with boys’ names—David, William, Chris, John, Bert—and lingo: “Re-e-e-a-lly? . . . You’re kidding! . . . I can’t be-e-e-lieve we are at the junior high. . . . Y’know, that bio teacher, Mr. C, is so-o-o creepy. . . . He has a piranha in his room. . . . Yeah, in a giant aquarium. . . . If I have to dissect a cow’s eye, I will die, positively die. . . . I just love David. Love him to death.”
I found Mr. C. infinitely fascinating. Unless confusing my memory with some Dickensian fiction, I recall he had a scarred, loosely hung arm, which I attributed to an unfortunate feeding frenzy on the part of his pet fish.
Amid all this twaddle, I looked down at my loafers with the penny wedged into each “buttonhole” and prayed to God that Mom would let me shave my legs above my knees this year. Then I pondered the meaning of someone “loved to death.” Was it a crime of passion or simply emotional overkill?
Thereafter, I panicked at the 7:35 a.m. horn honk. How it summoned me to silence amid all the twitter about gauchos, bell-bottoms, minis, boots, homecoming, Carole King, Carly Simon, heartbreak, and Bonne Bell Astringent. I longed to drop a boy’s name. Any name. However, the only boy I talked to was my brother Bud, whose homespun name and non-athlete status never rose to the carpool’s standard in praise of great men.
Even more shame to bear. “P.E. is a plot to humiliate me,” I cried, storming home one day. “Today everybody had on a bra and matching lace panties. I’m still wearing full-size cotton granny underpants from JC Penney.”
“Do say ‘undergarments,'” interjected Nannie in her South-Carolina-tinged accent. “Cotton is better for you.” A long silence left two key words hanging in the air: down there.
“Nobody told me to get a bra. I was so mortified I dressed in the bathroom stall.”
“You’ll get over it, dear,” my mother replied over her coffee cup with Carol Brady’s aplomb sans shag ‘do. Frankly, my mother resembled Alice, the Bradys’ housekeeper sans blue uniform, crisp white apron, and sensible shoes. “College makes up for junior-high blues.”
Oh, right! In SEC country, men suddenly admired co-eds just for their brains when they turned eighteen.
“Mother-r-r-r, I may die before college. I need a bra. Now!”
“Goodness, you must be upset. You’ve never called me ‘Mother-r-r-r’ before.”
“I do believe it is customary for Yankees to call their mamas ‘Mother,'” Nannie absently observed.
“What a fuss,” Mom threw up her hands.
“Sistah, you didn’t wear a bra till you packed up for Agnes Scott,” Nannie said, referring to my mother’s all-girl college that my oldest sister Martha labeled The Cloister.
“I was flat and free as a girl,” Mom said. “Now you’re dying to have a bra, and I imagine Martha wants to burn hers in front of the student union. And I thought she wanted to be ‘cool.’ What is the world coming to?”
On Martha’s first visit home from college, my mother managed to raise only one eyebrow but keep her mouth clamped: my sister sashayed in the shortest fringed mini that ever graced the Birmingham airport. Despite my role as one of four shunned siblings, Martha’s style elated me.
Yes, my mother was to ride many waves: psychedelic was merely the first. Her cultural surfing career wound down with punk rock and big hair.
(My Republican parents were mightily perplexed that they managed to conceive a couple of radicals who later simmered down. In fact, Martha wound up in the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi.)
Mom carelessly handed over a couple of Mary’s throwaway bras. (Although we were only one year apart, she already had a bosom that could heave.) I went from skinny to “frumpled” for a couple of months. When I wore a turtleneck, my upper torso resembled a poorly made bed.
One afternoon, Mom smoothed my poufy hair. “Look in my closet for the green bag on the top shelf, and then promise me you will not burn yours until you are a freshman in college.”
I scrambled for the package: a lace-and-ribbon-trimmed 32AA bra with padded cups that I could still squish between my thumb and forefinger, even when tightly strapped in. But I didn’t care. I almost went cross-eyed from glancing down at my newly packed chest, overflowing with pride that I, too, had something to lift and separate.