One tentative snip and then I was possessed with the necessity to act and be done with my boldness. My curls fell away like skin being shed by a snake.
By: Maisie Houghton
I was born in 1940, a bad time for the world, but I never did anything bad until the day I cut off my hair and left it on the floor for my mother to find, a bright, hot pool of yellow curls.
I was four. It was wartime and we were living in a rented house in Winter Park, Florida. My father, an officer in the navy, had recently been stationed there. My mother and I, along with Sybil, my older sister by two years, and Elizabeth, “Tizzy,” a new baby of two months, had moved from New York City to be near him.
Florida, despite all its palm trees and relentless sunlight, seemed dark to me — the people and the houses. Unaccustomed to southern heat, my mother kept the old, verandaed house heavily shaded. The blinds were always down, the curtains drawn. Someone was always taking a nap, my mother, my father (but not together), the amorphous baby. Sybil and I tiptoed around the closed doors, but when we went outside the glittering light hurt our eyes.
In the kitchen was Lily Mae, the black maid. Marion Skillon, a trained nurse from Naples, Maine, was also there. Uncertain in a new land, my mother had persuaded Marion to make the long journey south. Marion, all starched whiteness and squeaking rubber-soled shoes, stuck to the new baby upstairs. Lily Mae ironed endless rivers of laundry and passed dead-looking platters of food in the shadowy dining room.
My father was almost never there. When he did appear, it was often with a swirl of laughing young pilots in uniform. They brought us shells from the beach that we never visited. They set us on their knees, putting down their drinks to balance us on their laps.
The afternoon I rebelled, my mother was a long while on the telephone. She wasn’t the type to chatter on. She served as a sounding board to solve other people’s problems. My mother had been called to the telephone during a rare treat: We had been having lunch alone together. Her low voice burred on as she twisted the cord in her hand. What was she saying? To whom was she speaking?
I slipped away from the dining room table, wandering sulkily through the muted rooms. On my mother’s desk a pair of scissors gleamed. Long and sleek, they were grown ups’ scissors, not the stubby, disappointingly blunt ones we used for paper dolls. I ran my hand over my head. My hair was the one thing about me that was different. In everything else I matched my sister — our seersucker dresses, our red sandals, our black eyes. But Sybil had two brown pigtails while I still had a baby’s fuzz of buttery curls. I thought about Marion Skillon in the mornings, twisting my hair into ringlets, wrestling the ribbon to the top of my head. “There now, aren’t you sweet? Now go and be good.”
Suddenly it was easy to pick up the slender weapon and start to cut. One tentative snip and then I was possessed with the necessity to act and be done with my boldness. My curls fell away like skin being shed by a snake. It went so fast I hardly knew what I was doing. I crept back to the kitchen to face Lily Mae. She stared silently. “Your mama be upset,” she said, shaking her head as she moved through the swinging door with a stack of freshly ironed shirts. A little panic seized me, but, almost gleefully, I hurried to stand defiantly before my mother. She was still sitting, unspeaking, by the telephone. She seemed unmoved. “Heavens, what did you do that for? It will take forever to grow out.” Marion peered at me over the banister railing. “You’ve lost your looks,” she sniffed.
My mother guided me toward the dining room. “We must finish lunch,” she murmured, rousing herself. The table looked half-ravaged, like my hair, with crumpled napkins and tired lettuce on the plates. I started to weep at the enormity of what I had done. Fat tears fell on my grilled cheese sandwich. “Don’t fuss, darling,” consoled my mother distractedly. She wasn’t even looking at me.
There was an unspoken lesson in that afternoon. My mother should have been angry but instead she held her tongue. Was it at that point that I learned to guard the peace, to mind my manners, to keep my mouth shut?
On my report card, the music teacher wrote “pitch uncertain.”
In school someone would grab me from behind on the playground: “whose side are you on? Lucy’s?” — the charismatic troublemaker, or “Kitten’s?” — the charismatic good-girl. It seemed easier — and smarter — to keep my mouth shut.
One day I came home from school tense, weepy from trying to please everyone. My mother uncharacteristically drew herself up and exhorted me to “Stick by your guns, have the courage of your convictions.” Most important of all, “Be yourself!”
“But how do I know who I am?” I wondered.
Growing up, I swam like a fish in the clouded waters of family life.
My family was large, consisting mostly of women. Since I was born in 1940, the men in the family were soon absent, sent as soldiers to Europe or as naval officers aboard ships to the distant Pacific.
I remember not only my mother’s mother, “Gran,” as we called her, but also her mother, my great-grandmother, erect, dignified and austere in her long dress. The family I remember also harbored a great-great maiden aunt, several great-aunts and endless pretty cousins. During the war we stayed intermittently with my mother’s mother, Gran Jay. Though a young widow at fifty-two, she still kept a rambling house in what was then the quiet countryside of Long Island for her five daughters and one neighboring daughter-in-law.
Gran ran her house as an ark, the center of an otherwise fragmented family life. Her daughters dipped in and out of this comfortable, familiar world, using it as a kind of sacred place, sometimes for absolution and redemption, sometimes just for temporary sustenance, always for nourishment.
About the Author:
Maisie Houghton, author ofÂ Pitch Uncertain: A Mid-Century Middle Daughter Finds Her Voice, was born in New York City, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fifties and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1962. With her husband, she has lived in Corning, New York, for over forty years. Pitch Uncertain is her first book.
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