Denise Gee Essay Series: Hair Apparent

Denise Gee Essay Series: Hair ApparentAnyone with baby-fine hair knows it’s a hassle. So as a 9-year-old, I just didn’t bother with it. Tangles were frequent fliers in my strawberry blonde tresses, and combs were avoided at all costs.

My grandmother, however, was having none of it. One morning she announced I was in for a real treat.

“Both of us girls are going Bonnie’s Beauty Shop today to get our hair fixed,” she said. “Won’t that be fun?”

I blanched. “But I don’t wanna get my hair cut.”

“You have to, honey,” she insisted. “You’re about to start school. Don’t you want to look nice?”

Noticing me weighing my options, she cut to the chase.

“You can’t go to school with a perpetual rat’s nest in your hair,” she said. “You’ll be teased.”

Ugh. That pushed a button. Mama and I had recently moved from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Natchez, Mississippi, to live with my grandmother, Nannie, so I was about to start fourth grade at a new school. I certainly didn’t want to be teased. But still, paying a visit to my grandmother’s hair stylist just didn’t sit right. Nannie was 60 years older than me, with starched hair requiring a pick to raise it each morning and a pink silk cap to put it to bed each evening.

As far as I knew, only older ladies went to Bonnie’s. That included the two saleswomen, Sarah and Gladys, who worked in our family’s clothing boutique housed on the first floor of Nannie’s large Victorian home.

“It’s time for you to be a big girl,” said Sarah, whose coif had the same swoops and lift as my grandmother’s, but in platinum blonde. Gladys had a similar salt-and-pepper version, but more bulletproof to match her edgy demeanor. “Next time we see you, you’ll be all dolled up,” she said with a sly smile, one tinged with Schadenfreude.

With the clock ticking, I rifled through a stack of fashion and celebrity magazines in search of a look I might be able to live with—mostly of the “pageboy” persuasion. I clipped out an image of Montgomery, Alabama-born singer Toni Tennille, of Captain & Tennille (“Love Will Keep Us Together”) fame.

Soon Nannie and I were at Bonnie’s, enthroned in adjacent chairs. Our eyes met in the salon’s expansive mirror, where AquaNet cans could be seen in constant use. Nannie gazed at me dreamily, as though I were about to try on a wedding gown.

Bonnie’s assistant tended to Nannie’s “touch-up” while Bonnie herself—stylist to the grandes dames of Natchez—gloved up for my transformation.

I mustered the courage to show Bonnie my clipping of Toni, but it was instantly dismissed and placed facedown on the counter. “Why, that’s just an old bowl cut,” she said. “I can do better than that.”

With my head cantilevered in a cavernous shampoo bowl, Bonnie leaned in to set me straight. “That singer-lady you like has got thick hair, sweetie. You don’t,” she said, scrubbing my head as if it were an old washboard. “If you remember anything in life, it’s work with what you’ve got.”

After much of my tangle-prone hair had drifted to the floor, colorful curling rods were affixed to my cranium, and a cold liquid smelling of rotten eggs was squirted to and fro. I joined Nannie among the heavy-lidded dryers and inhabitants beneath them as she perused a tattered copy of Ladies’ Home Journal.

Before long, my timer sounded, and I was back to the sink, the chair, the mirror—and the new me.

“Why, lookah-there. You’ve got a widow’s peak like your Nannie,” Bonnie said. “Let’s play it up. Let’s give it a little tease. It’ll accentuate your face.”

As the comb grated its way through my bangs, I felt like I was drifting in and out of consciousness. I do recall Nannie delightedly writing a check for services rendered while hair-care instructions echoed in my water-clogged ears. Don’t wash it for a few days. Let it dry naturally so the curl will set. Do you have a satin pillowcase or cap? Do you need a hair pick?

But one phrase from a passerby still haunts my dreams.

“You two have matching hairdos!”

I touched my hair. It felt like shellacked cotton candy.

Think. Think. Think!

Once back in the shop, Nannie showed off our hair styles to everyone there.

“We’ve been to Bonnie’s,” she said with pride, and set out to locate her Kodak Instamatic to capture the moment.

 “She’s a little Shirley Temple!” one customer remarked. Another added, “Y’all have the same hair style—how adorable!”

Oh, for shame! I was dying inside.

When the hullabaloo settled, I retreated to the upstairs apartment my mother and I lived in, and quietly closed the bathroom’s pocket door. Next to our small sink was the bottle of Prell shampoo Mama had used that morning to wash her hair.

I turned on the faucets and lowered my head beneath the small spigots to let the cool water wash out the rotten egg smell, the AquaNet, the Shirley Temple, and the widow’s peak. I engaged Mama’s old hair dryer and plugged it in. The cacophonous noise it made surely sounded as though I was doing some bathroom remodeling. (In a way, I was.)

Facing my unruly hair in the mirror, I tried in vain to flatten my bangs over my forehead. But up they’d bounce like frayed tassels. The overall look was Little Orphan Annie Fright Wig.

“Deedee?” Nannie asked through the door, startling me out of my wits. “Whatcha doin’?”

I recognized that ultra-casual tone. It was a false flag.

“You know you’re not supposed to be washing your head, don’t you?”

“I’m just . . . washing my face.”

“With that old hair dryer? You’ll electrocute yourself!”

“I’m finished now,” I said reassuringly. “Be out soon!”

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for Nannie’s presence to no longer be felt, I slid open the door. And there she was.

“Girl, what in the world have you done!”

“I . . . I  . . . just wanted to get all the hairspray out.”

“The hairspray out?”

Her face was as red as hot pepper jelly.

“You’ve ruined it! You’ve ruined everything.”

Hearing the commotion, my mother arrived to see what the fuss was about.

“Look at her,” Nannie said, gesticulating in my direction. “She just washed good money down the drain. And now her hair—it’s a royal mess!” Disgusted, she made her way out of the apartment toward the stairs.

Clasping my shoulders, Mama sized me up. To my relief, she didn’t seem mad. “I think it looks better now,” she whispered conspiratorially, before immediately yelling out to Nannie, “Think of her as a little Zelda Fitzgerald!”

For some reason unbeknownst to me then, that really got my grandmother’s goat.

“I most certainly will not!” she responded defiantly.

Mama chuckled. “She’ll get over it.”

Fortunately, I had two weeks to let my “big girl” hair relax a bit, though it did nothing to shield me from being mercilessly teased for being the new kid in class.

But my Bonnie’s Beauty Shop misadventure did set the stage for a lifetime of trying to “fix” my fine hair (which unfortunately becomes even “finer” by the year).

I share all this with you because the above memories came rushing back to me during a recent visit to my hair stylist.

After going nine rounds with my bangs, she ultimately brushed back the whole shebang and assessed the situation.

“You know,” she said, leaning in. “You ought to work with that widow’s peak of yours. Would you mind if I teased it a little? I think it would really accentuate your face.”

I smiled. Somewhere, Nannie was as pleased as punch. And looking for her camera.

Text by Denise Gee

In our 2022 essay series, author Denise Gee shares memories and personal tales that celebrate the inimitable joys and escapades of Southern life. A Natchez, Mississippi, native, she is the author of six acclaimed books on Southern entertaining and design. Denise has worked for decades as a writer, editor, and stylist for magazines including Southern Living, Better Homes and Gardens, and Coastal Living—and now, Southern Lady. She and her photographer-husband, Robert Peacock, make their home in McKinney, Texas. For more, visit

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