Mama's big hair started with a smelly bottle
Rick Bragg Kitchen Perm
Credit: John Cuneo

Every August, as the heat of another Alabama summer settles upon the land, I'm haunted by the memories… no, the horrors…of the lingering scent of drugstore chemicals and the terrifying sight of unnaturally curly hair.

We are, for the most part, a people of straight hair. My Aunt Jo had some curls when she was little, but we were, and still are, a lank-haired family. We always looked upon curly-headed folks with envy. Their hair did not lie flat on their foreheads and necks, plastered there with sweat. They looked—I don't know—kind of springy. Breezy, almost.

I had my mama's hair. It was as straight as a Lutheran and had the consistency of a spiderweb.

In drier, cooler weather, the static electricity would make it point toward the moon. I didn't know till I was about 6 or so that there was actually a remedy for this.

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Wealthier women went to a place called the beauty shop and had their hair rolled and processed and then baked under what seemed to be a big, round toaster oven, usually as they talked about who might be with child.

Women like my mother performed this mystical procedure right in their kitchens. "Go outside and play," she always told me. "Mama's gonna get her a permanent."

"A perm'nent what?" I asked.

"Go," she ordered.

The procedure was too complicated, and obviously dangerous, to be performed alone. One of my aunts usually assisted, first draping my mother with what appeared to be a plastic bedsheet.

So, I mused, it must be some kind of surgery.

I'd later learn that I was barred from the house because of the fumes. They'd practically knock flies from the air in that hot, unair-conditioned little space.

After what seemed to be most of an afternoon, it was over, and I'd hear her call us at suppertime. People joke about how far a mother's voice will carry, across the pines and the cotton fields. I know that's a scientific fact. I'd rate her range at about 3 miles.

I remember running for the house with great anticipation. Supper was the best time of day every day, and if you got there first, you got the chicken leg or the delicious little cube of pork swimming in the pinto beans.

The sight of Mama almost caused me to choke on my drooling tongue. Her blond hair had been transformed into a round helmet of tight, alien curls, and it all smelled more than a little like Monsanto.

"Eek!" I said—I really did.

"Looks good, Mama," lied my brother Sam as he wagged a chicken leg in front of my face.

Now, more than a half century later, I still do not know why it was called a permanent, since it certainly was not. In a few days, the curls would begin to go away. In a month or so, it was as straight as a board, and she looked like my mama again.

Maybe they called it a permanent because of the duration of the psychological scarring. I don't know.

In time, I ceased to envy people with curls. Now, I envy those with hair of any kind.