Way back in the President Eisenhower years, women used to set their hair in little curlicues which created a kind of bushy fringe around their faces that was the fashion of the times. You probably couldn’t find any self-respecting woman of today north of Opelika, Alabama or Tupelo, Mississippi who’d be caught dead in such an ugly hairstyle, but it was all the rage in the 1950s, like cat’s eye glasses and poodle skirts. You can see it on movie stars like Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Roz Russell in Picnic (1956), if you happen to watch Turner Classic Movies. And Mamie Eisenhower, President Eisenhower’s wife, had the same hairstyle in a thousand newspaper photos back then. So it was just natural that my grandmother would want her hair that way, too, although I never imagined the trouble that pin curls would eventually get me into.
What you had to do was wet the hair thoroughly and twist twenty or thirty tufts into little counter-clockwise circles which you pasted down on the scalp and anchored with bobby pins or metal clips.
My mother used curlers instead of pin curls, because her jet black hair was too long and thick for pin curling. But my grandma had short, thin, white hair, which pin curled perfectly. And I was an excellent pin curler, my mother would have told you, by the time I reached ten, mature for my age, which was not so good in the ways that made me a smart aleck (according to my parents), but very good for pin curls.
My grandma would sit in the dark green upholstered easy chair in the living room of her enormous apartment off Sheridan Road in Chicago, her hair freshly wet from sticking her head under the kitchen faucet, with a towel around her neck to catch the drips.
She would watch the daily soap operas like The Guiding Light, Love of Life and Search for Tomorrow while I went to work on her, with a bowl of fresh fruit in her lap, which she slowly devoured. Her eyes never left the TV screen as the characters fell in and out of love, married and divorced, murdered one another and suffered from every imaginable disease and misfortune. Sometimes the juice dribbled down her chin and silently pooled in her lap. My father used to make fun of the way she ate fruit, letting saliva leak out the sides of his mouth like he was the village idiot.
“Leave some for us,” I had said to her when I was six, which made her cry out like she’d been hit with a mallet.
“Carly!” my mother shouted. I could tell from her face that I’d said something terrible, which made me feel guilty, but no matter how much I apologized, my grandma refused to touch a grape, peach or plum for an entire month.
Probably as a result of all the fruit she ate, my grandma’s colon would rumble and pop like a chorus of caiman mating calls as she walked up and down the long hallway of her apartment from the kitchen to the living room. Since nobody else in my family made such noises, at least not in public, they shocked me at first, but when my mother raised her eyebrows at me, I kept quiet. I didn’t want to make another mistake like I did with the fruit. And at least they weren’t smelly.
But that wasn’t the only unusual thing about my grandma. She was kosher, which meant she didn’t eat most of the foods I loved, like bacon, pork chops and liverwurst. She called them trayf, a Yiddish word that I guessed meant garbage, and said, “we dasn’t eat that.”
And she almost never smiled, so most of the time her face looked like those dead presidents on Mt. Rushmore, especially George Washington.
But I loved putting her hair up in pin curls, the way they looked so organized in their neat little columns and rows. It felt like arranging all my books on a shelf or perfectly folding my sweaters in a drawer. It was also the only way I knew how to relate to my grandma, who spent most of the time complaining to my mother about my father.
“He should pay something every week for the girl,” she would say, the girl being me.
“He has no money,” my mother would say. My parents had been divorced for about a year by then, and my father lived with my other grandma, Anna, on the south side of the city.
“He’s a bum,” my grandma Emma would say. “I told you not to marry him.”
One time in the spring of my tenth year, I had to stay with my grandma for a whole week while my mother was hospitalized for bursitis in her shoulder. We had never been alone like that before and I was very worried that we wouldn’t get along.
“What will we talk about?” I asked my mother.
“Talk about school. Tell her what you’re doing at school. Remember how she helped you memorize your times tables?”
“That was when I was seven,” I said with a whine.
“Ask her about her favorite TV stars. She likes Jimmy Durante and Milton Berle.”
“What should I ask her about them?”
“I don’t know!” my mother said, getting irritated and probably feeling a little guilty for leaving me with grandma instead of my father, who she didn’t trust because he was a drinker. She had told me he lived too far away from my junior high school, but I knew that wasn’t the real reason I couldn’t stay with him.
“Ask her about her soap operas.”
“What’s new on The Guiding Light, grandma,” I asked when we were alone that first Monday afternoon. I had taken the Sheridan Road bus to her place on Addison Street when school let out, after first stopping off at Foster’s Grill to eat my last trayf hotdog for a week.
I was also worried about how I would get along with Aunt Mattie, my grandma’s grumpy younger sister who did her own pin curls and lived most of the year on what they called “the cold porch” in the very back end of the apartment because it had screens instead of window glass and was freezing cold all winter long.
True to form, I had said the wrong thing to Aunt Mattie, too. She was sitting at the dining room table before going off to work as a book- keeper, drinking a cup of hot water with lemon like she did every morning, sucking each spoonful into her mouth with a loud slurping sound, which even at age five I knew you weren’t supposed to do. I told her that if she drank tea with honey instead of hot water and lemon, maybe she’d stop being such a sourpuss. She wouldn’t even say hello to me again until I was eight.
Both my parents lectured me all the time about not saying everything that came into my mind. But I suspected that my father secretly enjoyed the mistakes I made with grandma and Aunt Mattie, because it hurt his feelings that they didn’t like him. “I’m an artist,” he said, meaning he was a classical music composer. “And they are Philistines.” I tried to look up that word in the school library dictionary so I’d know what grandma and Aunt Mattie were, but I spelled it with an f.
“Try being quiet,” my mother instructed me before she went off to the hospital. “Use up all your words before you leave school.”
That was a sore point with me because I got twelve bad behavior checks on my last report card for talking all the time. But I couldn’t help it, I got bored with how slowly the teachers taught what I already understood.
“If Tommy has 15 birthday party invitations and there are 27 kids in class, make an equation that will show how many kids won’t be invited.”
“15+X=27, 27-15=X, X is 12!”
“Don’t shout out the answers, Carly.”
There’s a lot I don’t remember about the week I spent with grandma, but some things really stick out in my mind. Like feeding bread to the ducks in Lincoln Park, and lying on my grandma’s maroon silk comforter while we talked, and shopping at the kosher butcher and downtown at the State Street department stores. The weirdest thing was how totally different my grandma was when it was just me and her together and my mother wasn’t around. I mean, she saved bread for a whole week before I stayed with her because she knew how much I liked feeding the ducks. She fed me salmon croquettes and chopped liver, which I loved, even though they were a lot of trouble to make. She even let me call my dad on the telephone twice and didn’t say anything mean about him, not one word.
And she bought me a fancy black velvet party dress at Carson Pirie Scott for my boyfriend Neil’s Bar Mitzvah, which she paid for with four wrinkly five dollar bills from her little black change purse. Then she let me pick out my first pair of high heels to go with the dress. (They weren’t very high, but still!)
Grandma didn’t even mind when I called Neil one evening after I’d finished my homework and told him I loved him and blew him a kiss. I started to think there was a very romantic person hidden inside of her that practically no one else knew about.
“Do you ever miss grandpa?” I asked, even though I never knew him, he had died from pneumonia when he was twenty-nine because there wasn’t penicillin yet. My grandma was twenty-eight and my mother was only seven when it happened. I had never thought of them being anything but the ages they were now.
“Yes,” she said. She rubbed her hand on the silk of the comforter like she was remembering something soft. “He was a sweet, gentle man,” she said. “Eugene.”
“How come there are no pictures of Grandpa Eugene?”
“We were too poor to own a camera,” she said. “Eugene only made a few nickels and dimes selling pots and pans.
“How come you never married again?”
“I was too busy raising five little children.”
“Now you’re not.”
“Now I’m too old.”
“I want to get married,” I said. “I want to fall in love and get married in a beautiful white lace dress.”
“It’s wonderful to be in love,” my grandma said.
I tried to imagine her loving Eugene like I loved Neil but I couldn’t picture her as a girl.
“My mother said I shouldn’t talk to you about things like that. Kissing and, you know, other stuff.” I didn’t dare use the word sex for fear it would make her head explode.
“There’s nothing wrong with kissing,” she said, “if it’s with someone you care about.”
“Yeah, that’s what I think, too. I had to kiss this boy named Dean who I didn’t like during Spin the Bottle at Helen Meister’s birthday party and it was—” I searched for the right word but couldn’t think of one awful enough. “His teeth kept scraping against my teeth.”
“That sounds terrible,” she said, not like my mother, who would have freaked out that there was a kissing game at the party. But my grand- ma probably would have freaked out too if my mother had been there. It was like she had to pretend to be mean and old fashioned when my mother was around, but I didn’t understand why.
That same night, we went to the drug store to get Epsom salt and aspirin for her rheumatism, and while we were there, she let me pick out a Max Factor pressed powder compact and a Hazel Bishop Petunia Pink lipstick. I wanted her to buy a lipstick for herself too but she just blushed and shook her head no.
“How about something for Aunt Mattie?” I said, feeling generous with grandma’s money. We bought her a little bottle of cologne, which made my aunt cry when we gave it to her.
“I’ll put a dab behind my ears every morning,” she said. Then she whispered, “The girls at work will think I have a boyfriend.”
I could hardly believe it, my ancient Aunt Mattie with white hair and a great big red nose sounding just like a teenager. I got such a kick out of the way she called all her old lady friends “girls.”
The bad part came when my mother got out of the hospital and I told her what a great time I had with grandma and all the things we did together and what we talked about. I thought she’d be happy that we got along so well and she’d be proud of me, but she got very snippety and wouldn’t even look at me.
“Well, I’m glad you had such a good time while I was lying in the hospital in pain,” she said, like she expected me to be miserable the whole week like she was.
That night I heard her telling grandma on the phone how it should have been her job to buy me a party dress and high heels and make-up and her business to talk to me about kissing and love and marriage and then she asked why grandma had never bought her any party clothes or make-up or talked to her about love or marriage or her father Eugene.
I hated hearing her shout and cry and I couldn’t understand why she was so upset. She acted like she thought grandma liked me more than she liked her and that seemed crazy to me at the time. I didn’t know back then that she felt like the least loved child in the family, or that she’d stayed behind in Chicago while my aunts and uncle moved away to Cincinnati, Detroit and Los Angeles, hoping that she could finally win grandma’s love.
I was only ten so I didn’t exactly know how to help my mother, but I knew I had to do something. So the next time we went to grandma’s house, I told her that she should set grandma’s hair.
“My mom’s a much better pin curler than I am,” I explained to grandma. “And she does it faster, too.”
My mother thought I was just being weird, I could see by the face she made at me.
“Sometimes she just gets lazy,” she told grandma, taking the dish of clips and bobby pins from me.
But I didn’t care if she didn’t understand or said I was lazy or weird. I just wanted her to get grandma’s love back from me, because she needed it a lot more than I did.