Friday, January 27, 2023

The Soapbox: The Beehive

Brandi Chambless

It was February of 1960 when the phone call that would change the American beauty industry for decades was answered at Margaret Vinci Coiffures salon. Modern Beauty Shop magazine asked to speak to owner Margaret Heldt, award-winning hairstyling champion. She accepted the challenge:

“We need a new hairstyle for a new decade.”

Until then, it had been all about the bouffant, but for the next sixty years, Heldt’s creation of the beehive was embraced by early adopters like Jacqueline Kennedy who famously passed the style to the modern era of stars like the late Amy Winehouse and pop superstar Beyoncé.

On the fateful 1960s day that a particular Ladies’ Home Journal hit the mailbox at my Granny’s home in the country, Granny carried that magazine on the tan leather seat of her Pink Oldsmobile Supreme down to the beauty parlor where her friend Shirley was waiting. Shirley had recently married into the community and moved from the bright lights of Hattiesburg, MS where she had mastered the latest hair fashions.

So for over 50 years every Friday afternoon, Granny and Aunt Hattie had a standing appointment. The only time Shirley ever missed the appointment was during a crisis one Friday in which her young son Lemuel was badly burned by a bonfire and almost died. Granny’s hair was teased to the sky when Lemuel’s young friend came bursting into the beauty parlor, panicked.

Lemuel survived the accident with almost a year of recovery before Shirley ever came back to work. There, she perfected Granny’s beehive through the decades, until she died. This was quite unfortunate for Granny, being that she and Shirley had a casket guarantee. If Granny died first, she was going to Heaven with one of Shirley’s beehives.

On Thursday nights, I used to beg Granny to take down her long silvery hair just so I could see what she really looked like without the beehive. Besides, nobody really knew exactly how tall she was. But her answer was always a firm, “No, somebody could die in the night.”

Sometimes as a teenager, I’d sneak over to the beauty parlor to see how Granny looked with two feet of blue hair teased in every direction. I knew I’d be in trouble later for invading the secret society of Shirley’s salon, but my curiosity was strong. Some people grow their hair for holiness, some for vanity. With her, I think it was a little of both.

Today, Granny is 94 years old. She has outlived two hair dressers and still has her long locks except for the time one lady sent her home from the salon with a pageboy bob. We gave her vitamins for weeks before she came out of a medically-induced coma.

This time, I received the call to come so I made my way to the hospital where I was her only visitor. Her hair, disheveled, and her countenance was unresponsive. The doctors were preparing us with the word hospice.

I did the bravest thing I think I’ve ever done while in full view of the nurses’ station; I took the bobby pins from Granny’s hair and placed them in her Sucrets box. The nurses couldn’t have known I was breaking the rules of my childhood by taking her hair down or teasing it like Shirley had. Using the hairspray, I formed the best beehive I possibly could.

I prayed over her thinking if God didn’t do a miracle she might arrive to Heaven with my beehive instead of a professional one. The next day, the joke was on us, because she made a supernatural recovery that we attributed to her not wanting to spend any money on hospice fees.

Things improved greatly until she broke a hip and landed back in a rehabilitation center, known also to the rest of the family as a nursing home. Every time I can, I take the brush and we “go to Shirley’s”. She tilts that head this way and that and says, “Would you like for me to remove my glasses?” as if I was Margaret Heldt and this was the first beehive ever.

“Oh yes, ma’am! That would be great. Oh Granny, you look so pretty!”

That blue hair is still her crowning glory over her strong back and youthful legs, the product of a lot of yard work since childhood.

Wishing her blue hair could speak of the untold secrets of Shirley’s salon, I unknowingly did unlock one secret in particular that everyone thought I already knew. I was actually there in the beauty parlor the day of Lemuel’s accident, only a little girl myself. I must have blocked out the events of that day, for my only recollection was riding the school bus with Lemuel who was older than I by almost a decade. I wondered what it was like to be him, having survived.

I couldn’t help but wonder what were the other secrets of Shirley’s salon and whether she would approve of my handiwork. I suppose the mysteries will remain, but this I do know. Today, when I place that final pearl clip in the beehive, Granny’s gray eyes look up and she says in a childlike voice, “I…love…you.” She isn’t mad, not one little bit.

Brandi Chambless
Brandi Chambless
Read Brandi's column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper.

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