June 28, 2011
Almost every woman who lives at The Place goes once a week to Marveen, the beauty shop stylist. Marveen cuts, perms, and shapes every head of downy white hair into pretty much exactly the same style—more or less flat on top, ear-length, and fluffed out on the sides, a modified George Washington look.
Alice goes to Marveen too, but she doesn’t appreciate looking like all the other residents, even though once, long ago, she and her five sisters all wore the same cut.
There was no cinema in the little prairie town where her family lived, but somehow the bob reached even the back roads of North Dakota. Every girl wanted to look like the actress, Louise Brooks:F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (May 1920). Marie and LaRue, the two oldest sisters, would have read it at the post office or the general store. Bernice didn’t get happy results, but that didn’t matter. Long hair was out; the bob was in.
Alice and her sisters all slept in the same (two) beds, ate at the same table, and dressed in each others’ hand-me-down clothes and stockings and shoes. Since they all wanted the same haircut, and since there was no Marveen in town, they had to do the cutting themselves.
Mattie was in charge of Alice’s haircut. She trimmed one side and then trimmed the other to match. It was uneven. She tried again, and then again, until she’d cut off so much hair it was too short to be considered a bob or anything else, other than a mistake.
Eventually it grew out and all the sisters wore bobs, which they kept in place with these:Later, when their father Louie got a job as a guard at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, they not only got to go the Pen to watch the prisoners play baseball, but they were also allowed to chat with the convicts, eat with them, visit their dentist, and get haircuts from the prison barber.
Alice and her sisters knew many of the convicts by name and weren’t afraid of them, possibly because Louie had told his daughters that he liked some of the men and felt sorry for them, at least those who were sad and ashamed about what they’d done.
But some, of course, had no regrets. Louie was scheduled (twice) to be the guard on duty when prisoners conspired to escape. He was targeted to be killed if he put up a fight, but both plots were discovered and he lived to tell the tale, such as he told it.
“When my father told a story,” Alice said, “he’d begin and he’d talk for a while and then seem to come to a stop. We’d start speaking but had to quit because it always turned out he wasn’t finished. It was hard to know when his stories ended.”
Alice reminded me that my father used to cut my brothers’ hair. I remembered him standing in the kitchen with newspapers all over the floor and both my brothers sitting very still with towels around their necks while he worked on them with a buzzing electric shears like this one:
Here’s Michael with a typical haircut by Roger:
Alice told me that Roger only acted as barber “when he felt like it,” and one time she tired of waiting for him to get inspired so she cut the boys’ hair herself. The electric shears got away from her and she had to fill in various spots on their heads with a pencil. She didn’t try it again.
When Alice’s black hair began to turn gray in the 1970s she dyed it. One morning she stood at the front window of the clothing store she and my father ran in a small Iowa town and watched several older women with home-colored hair walk by.
“You could see in the sunlight that it was dyed,” she said. “You could see sun coming through blues and reds where there shouldn’t be blues and reds. I didn’t want to look like that, and so the next time we went to Minneapolis I bought a gray wig and came back home, put it on and went to work.” In a single day, she’d leaped from black to gray.
The jeweler across the street, a friend of my father’s, called him and said he saw a strange woman changing the display in the store window. “That’s Alice,” Roger said.
Over the next year, she ordered four more gray wigs from catalogs, each in a different style. When all of her own hair had grown out gray, she stopped using the wigs altogether and put them away.
A few years ago when I flew to Iowa to move her out of her house, we walked around each room together and peered into long-forgotten corners and closets, assessing the situation. In an unused bedroom, I opened a cupboard door and five white Styrofoam mannequin heads, each wearing a different gray hairpiece and each with a pair of large blue eyes alarmingly like my mother’s own blue eyes, stared out at me. I jumped back. I’d forgotten all about the wigs.
“I drew those eyes on them one day long ago for fun,” Alice explained, laughing. “And now I see it was worth it.”
She’d taken a long walk, she told me on the phone last night. She’d walked the sidewalks of The Place, alongside lawns of freshly cut grass and through stands of proud trees with their splendid crowns of new leaves. She wandered past banks of white roses and watched the sun go down and spent a few moments missing the black hair that was once hers.
Listen to Blind Alfred Reed - Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?(.mp3) Why do you bob your hair, girls? You're doing mighty wrong; God gave it for a glory And you should wear it long . You spoil your lovely hair, girls, You keep yourself in style; Before you bob your hair, girls, Just stop and think a while. Why do you bob your hair, girls? It is an awful shame To rob the head God gave you And bear the flapper's name. You're taking off your covering, It is an awful sin; Don't never bob your hair, girls, Short hair belongs to men. Why do you bob your hair, girls? It does not look so nice; It's just to be in fashion, lt's not the Lord's advice. And every time you bob it You're breaking God's command You cannot bob your hair, girls And reach the Glory land. Why do you bob your hair, girls? It's not the thing to do; Just wear it, always wear it, And to your Lord be true. And when before the judgment You meet your Lord up there, He'll say, "Well done, for one thing, You never bobbed your hair." From Ozark Folksongs, Randolph. Collected from Laura Wasson, Ark., 1942 Note: Written and recorded by Blind Alfred Reed in 1927.
To protect privacy, no real names (other than family names and famous names) are used in any of these posts.