When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, my mother had a beauty shop right next to our house. It was convenient for her to work in all of her customers while cooking, doing laundry, and taking care of her children at the same time. She had a career and was a full-time mother, all in one handy place. The setup was also great for my sisters and me who often served as waitresses, bringing hot coffee and usually a slice of Mama’s gateau du jour to the ladies as they sat under the dryer and read the most recent issue of McCall’s or Life Magazine. Some of my richest memories are of those women who came in for their weekly shampoo and set and shared a bit of their lives with us.
Among my favorites were Viva and Bella, a pair of elderly sisters who came with the same regularity as Sunday morning Mass. I didn’t have to see them to know they’d arrived; I could always hear Bella’s standard greeting: “Oh, Gawd!” It was her way of letting us know that she was suffering. I learned pretty quickly that you didn’t dare ask her what was wrong, or that would trigger a recitation of her litany of ailments, a monologue that could well last the entire hour they were there. It always amazed me that a woman who was in such pain had no trouble whatsoever describing her woes without skipping a beat. Best of all, though, were the stories Viva and Bella told us about their baby, Pattie (pronounced Pat-TEE). Pattie was not human, but she really should have been. She did everything but talk. That little rat terrier had probably never seen another dog, so she thought she was folks. When coffee time arrived at their house, Bella and Viva always set the little dog’s cup on the floor. If Pattie sulked and turned away, Bella was sure to rub it in that Viva had put in two sugars when she knew darn good and well that Pattie liked only one. When the concoction was just to her taste, she’d slurp up the hot liquid and then retire to her own little cushion where she could savor the latest gossip or watch the soaps, standard fare at Viva’s and Bella’s house, usually playing at full volume until the walls shook. (Both ladies had a hearing problem). I expect that Pattie eventually got one too after being exposed to such ear-splitting volumes for so long. Viva, Bella, and Pattie—what a threesome. They were far more entertaining than anything we could find around the house, so when they showed up, we usually piled into the beauty shop to enjoy their company. Too bad that current kids who are stuck to MTV and that boring line-up of belly-dancing babes don’t have a Viva, Bella, and Pattie in their lives. They’d find out what character really means.
And speaking of character, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Miss Aline. She had character PLUS. Rings on her fingers, fancy scarves around her neck, high heel shoes, and lots of rouge—she didn’t go anywhere without that equipment! When she came to Mama’s shop, she never came alone. Unlike Viva, she didn’t come with her sister—she came with her Styrofoam head! It sported a fancy wiglet which got the same shampoo and set she got and which left Mama’s shop all dolled up and ready to go. It was Miss Aline’s emergency coiffeur, the one she popped onto her locks when her natural curls went flat at mid-week, between hair appointments. I always got a kick out of seeing it setting pretty under its own dryer right next to Miss Aline and her dryer. Sometimes, I wanted to offer it a cup of coffee and a piece of cake and ask if it was comfortable.
Then, there was Miss Ida. I loved her primarily because of her false teeth. They were an awful fit, but they made for interesting viewing by a child of my age. When Miss Ida talked, her dentures moved and clicked. It was almost as though they had a life of their own. I thought they would have been excellent Hollywood material, a duo sort of like Charlie McCartney and Edgar Bergen. I could just picture them in lights! Miss Ida and her teeth! She’d talk; they’d pop out and answer her. It wasn’t just her dentures, though, that I found endearing about Miss Ida. I loved her absent-mindedness. I thought I was the queen of distractedness until I met her. She entertained us with her tales about losing her car in the parking lot. “I got so tired of doing that, I finally put a red glove on the antenna. I love the way it waves to everybody along the road,” she and her teeth rattled on one day. Then, she told us about her forgetfulness and how it gave her fits when her son’s wedding day was approaching. She had packed her suitcases, locked them up, and then forgotten where she’d hidden the key. To make matters worse, she realized that the wedding wasn’t until the following week. “All I could think of was how I’d survive for the next seven days without my Noxzema,” she wailed. I still don’t know why she thought the key would show up when it was time to leave for the wedding; I never figured it out, but I enjoyed hearing her clickety chatter nonetheless.
I am so happy Mama had her beauty shop right next to our house. We are richer for it, not monetarily, but socially and psychologically. We met so many people during those days, shared in their everyday trials and triumphs, laughed with them, cried with them, and learned from them. The beauty shop was so much more than shampoo, hair rollers, combs, and perms. It was even more than steaming hot coffee served with coconut cake or pecan pie. It was a slice of life, rich and hearty and nourishing to the soul. It remains a part of who I am today. Thank you, Viva and Bella and Pattie, Miss Aline, and Miss Ida, and thank you, Mama, for making it all possible.