I practically grew up in the beauty shop. Every Friday, there I was in Beverly Hills, watching my mother get her hair and nails done. I ate a grilled cheese sandwich while her polish dried. Naturally, my mother, who never left the house without makeup, who always looked stylish and well-coordinated, hoped all that early exposure to the world of beauty and high-maintenance would rub off on me.
Much to her disappointment, this particular quest had little if any effect. I was a shy girl. I didn’t crave attention. I didn’t want to stand out. I wanted my Barbie dolls to look nice. Let those girls wear pretty clothes and pointy shoes. Let me blend in, unnoticed.
Hair cuts and shopping excursions with my mom were often traumatic. Before we even left the house, my dad would urge us to, “Come back friends.”
To this day, it makes me cringe to think about the most harrowing haircut I ever received. I was 15. My mom had heard about this genius hairdresser who worked out of his house. Movie stars made up most of his clientele. She was lucky to get me an appointment, she said.
At 15, I wore my baby-fine brown hair like every other girl at school. Long and parted in the middle. It was the ’70s, after all. But my mom had a new style in mind for me, a style she kept to herself for the time being.
One foot into Mr. Ray’s tiny West Hollywood duplex and I knew I was in trouble. The first hint of imminent danger: Mr. Ray didn’t believe in mirrors. Not for hair-cutting purposes, he didn’t. Why distract customers with their own reflection? Mirrors interfered with his art. He preferred the element of surprise.
So, I sat down in The Chair, quivery and terrified, unprepared for the untimely execution of my hair. Out came the scissors. My heart beat faster. And faster. I could hardly breathe. I heard a lot of snip… snip… snipping. Way too much snipping. I started to panic. Piles of hair formed around my ankles. I looked at my mom for reassurance, and there she was, smiling away, winking and nodding, giving me the ol’ OK sign. From her end, my haircut was going great. Better than great. It was going exactly as planned.
Finally, after what felt like eternity, the hair cut ended. My mother was visibly ecstatic. I believe there was a brief smattering of applause. Mr. Ray was nearly euphoric – another masterpiece to add to his list. Just picture these two giddy traitors, grinning in mutual delight, and you get an idea of what I was up against.
Together, they walked me over to the mirror Mr. Ray hid in another room. Of course, I already knew something unspeakably horrible had taken place. Where hair once graced my shoulders in long, stringy, split-end clumps, there was… nothing.
Mr. Ray told me to close my eyes and positioned me for the big reveal. My mother promised I was going to love it. I opened my eyes and went numb. It was so much worse than I had feared.
Mr. Ray turned pale. “I’ll die if you don’t like it.”
My mom put a hand on my shoulder to stop it from shaking. “Honey, it looks great. Just give it some time.”
I squinted at her through tears, my upper lip trembling.
The ride home was silent. Safe to say we did not come home friends. We were barely in the garage when I bolted from the car, ran upstairs to my room, stood in front of the mirror and cried, hysterically, at the sight of my brand new, unsolicited ’do.
This was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
Hours later, a knock at my door. “Come in,” I croaked, my throat sore from howling. My mother came in and sat by me on the bed. “How do you feel about your hair? Do you like it now?”
“No,” I said.
“But you look so pretty with shorter hair.”
“I look stupid.”
“You could never look stupid, honey.”
I started to soften. I managed half a smile. She took my hand. I thought, here it is, the apology I’ve been waiting for, the mea culpa, the promise that she’d never subject me to anything like that again.
“I think you upset Mr. Ray today,” she said. “You hurt his feelings. I want you to call him and apologize.”
She handed me a piece of paper with his number. “Just tell him you like your hair; that it just took a little while to get used to it.”
“I don’t like it,” I said.
“Tell him you do, anyway.”
She left the room. I went downstairs and dialed Mr. Ray. I prayed he wasn’t home. It was 1973, a blissful time in the history of communications. No call waiting. No answering machines.
“Hello?” Mr. Ray said, a wounded tone in his voice.
And then, with as much conviction as I could muster, which believe me, wasn’t much, I lied to him, and please, let the record show, I’m the worst liar ever. “I really like my hair. It just took a while to get used to it.”
“I am so relieved, you have no idea,” he said. “I’ve been upset all afternoon.”
He wasn’t the only one. We said goodbye, and I went upstairs to find my mother. “I’m never going back there again,” I said, and slammed my door for dramatic effect.
Many years later, when I was in my mid-30s, my mother’s obsession shifted to another part of my anatomy. My lack of nail polish left her mortified. In the summer, she’d sneak a look at my toes and physically shudder. “Honey,” she’d say, trying to sound casual, like the idea had just come to her, “Next time you’re getting your hair done, get a pedicure. My treat.”
I’d looked down at my toes, naked and unadorned, and shrugged. “Okay, Mom, maybe if I have time.”
I didn’t. I was the mother of two wild beasts. Getting one to kindergarten and the other to sleep through the night ate up all my energy. Pedicures? Pretty low on my list of priorities.
Fast forward about six years, a few days before my mother went into the hospital. Right before her voice gave out for good, we talked on the phone, pretending everything was normal – even though she was on oxygen most of the time; even though the lung cancer had spread to her bones. There she was, dying at the age of 72, and somehow she remained slightly optimistic. I still have no idea why. In what would be our last conversation, she told me Marie, her long-time manicurist, had come by that afternoon to remove her acrylic nails. She was worried that toxic chemicals could get into her system. I struggled to sound upbeat, and praised her decision.
My mother went on to deliver a bit of unsettling news. “Marie offered to do my toenails. She said it was on her. So she takes out the only nail polish she has, and it’s orange. She knows I don’t like orange. ‘I’m so sorry, Gloria, but orange is all I have, is it okay?’ It wasn’t okay. But I let her do them, anyway. I still can’t believe my toes are orange.”
Whether she meant to or not, she made me laugh out loud. We laughed together. It was our last laugh, and it was a good one.
“Orange?” I said.
“When have I ever had orange anything?”
“Never. You never wear orange.”
“It’s not my color.”
“It’s not mine either.”
“We’re not orange people.”
Just a few days later, when she was lying there in the hospital bed, those orange toes took on greater importance. They’d started the morphine drip. She wasn’t long for this world, and she knew it. My brother John was gently massaging her feet, trying to relax her. She couldn’t speak anymore, but I knew what she was thinking. She looked down at her toes, then up at me. There was urgency in her eyes.
I started to interpret for her.
“I know, Mom. I know. They’re orange. You don’t like orange. You’re going out with orange toes. That sucks.”
After she died, she appeared nightly in my dreams for awhile. In one dream, she showed up, dressed entirely in orange. She had a critical message to impart.
“Be careful what color you wear when you die, because whatever color you have on, that’s what you’ll be wearing for eternity. Look at me! I’m stuck with orange. I don’t like orange.”
I woke up, laughing. Even from the beyond, her humor came through. Later on, I went to the store and bought an orange top. I wore it in her honor. If she had to wear orange, I did, too. It was the least I could do. And, as a final tribute, I did one more thing she would’ve liked. I started getting pedicures.
Carol Starr Schneider is a writer living in California.