By Judith Ireland
At five years old, in 1950, Margaret Calhoun was bald as an egg. There was not one hair, not one bit of fuzz to interfere with the shine that made her head glow like the gold-capped dome on the capital building in Atlanta. I wondered if her mother spit on her head in the morning and polished it with a shoe shine rag. It was not like today, when you see a child like that. You would think she had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy or radiation or something and your heart would go out. Back then, she was just bald and you didn’t know what to think. Other than her baldness, Margaret was the prettiest little girl you could imagine. She had delicate features, see-through skin, and huge blue eyes with lashes like a movie star’s. Unfortunately, her blue eyes made the blue veins that ran across her skull even more prominent than they would have been otherwise. Margaret’s mother dressed her like Shirley Temple, minus the hair bows, of course. Her dresses had puffed sleeves and full bouncy skirts tied in the back with oversize sashes. She was never bare footed like the rest of us, but wore little white, unscuffed Mary Janes and white nylon socks trimmed with lace.
The Calhouns lived across the street from my grandparents, but the houses were not similar. The Calhoun’s house was a large Victorian on the corner of Main, a stylish street, and 14th, a side street. If you walked out the back door of the Calhoun’s house and across 14th, you would be standing in front of my grandparents’ house. And in 1950, on a summer afternoon, you’d most likely be looking at my grandmother rocking on the porch while she crocheted. Despite the difference in their social standing, Mrs. Calhoun and my grandmother, whom we called Mama, were friends. That is, Mrs. Calhoun frequently came over, with Margaret in tow, and visited with Mama on the porch, although I do not recall Mama ever visiting at the Calhoun’s house.
My cousin Carol and I were a couple of years older than Margaret. We spent a good bit of time at Mama’s house, which was just next door to Carol’s. My house was a few blocks away, but we spent no time there. As little girls go, I was more or less the polar opposite of Margaret. In the summertime, I generally wore my brother’s handed down shorts and shirts, and had on footwear only on Sundays to go to church. If my hair was combed on any day other than Sunday, it was because my mother had managed to tackle me in the morning before I headed out for Carol’s. Carol did comb her hair, and occasionally wore a sundress or sandals.
Carol and I did not give much thought to Margaret. Mama had cautioned us not to stare at her head, or to ever mention the fact that she had no hair. “Mrs. Calhoun worries that other children will make fun of her, hurt her feelings,” Mama said. For her part, Margaret made it easy not to deal with her because she didn’t say a word, nor did she have any expression on her face that indicated a feeling one way or another about anything. She just sat with the women like she was one of them and if she ever saw us, it was like we were another species that held little interest for her.
Apparently, though, Margaret enjoyed her time on Mama’s porch to the point that she started crossing the street on her own, and taking up a seat there beside Mama to rock for a while. Mama taught her to crochet, but she never advanced beyond making a long chain, for which there is no earthly purpose, and the activity quickly lost its appeal. Then, one afternoon while Carol and I were playing Jack stones on the linoleum floor in Mama’s kitchen, Mama came back there holding Margaret by the hand.
“Girls,” she said, “Margaret would like to play with you. You be nice to her, you hear?” She gave us sharp looks, dropped Margaret’s hand, and clicked out of the kitchen back out to the porch.
I was on my sevensies, headed to win the game because Carol had not made it past her fivesies. I always did better on Mama’s kitchen floor because the linoleum was smooth and even and did not cause the ball to bounce in weird directions like the bumpy hardwood floors did. In addition, it felt cool on our bare legs, and on those summer days, any relief from the heat was welcome.
“Do you want to play Jack stones?” I asked, hoping she’d say yes.
“No,” Margaret said. “I can’t sit on the floor.”
“Why not?” Carol asked her.
“It’s dirty,” Margaret said.
“No, it’s not,” I said, but Margaret only looked away.
“Well,” I said, “You want to go outside and play ‘It’?”
“No,” Margaret said. “I’d mess up my shoes.”
“My goldfish died and we buried him in the sandbox,” Carol offered. “We could dig him up and look at him,” to which Margaret made no reply.
“I can stand on my head,” I said.
“No, you can’t,” Carol said.
“Do you want to color?” I asked. Mama had some tired old coloring books that had the good pages already colored, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
“Yes,” Margaret said. “I can stay in the lines very good.”
Carol sifted through a bookcase in the hallway and brought out the books and a coffee can that held bits of crayons. She dumped the crayons on the kitchen table with the coloring books and we all sat down. Margaret went right to work with the coloring, but Carol and I lost interest pretty quickly, and took the opportunity to look closely at Margaret’s head, which brought Mama’s china doll to mind.
“Do you know,” I asked Margaret, “that Mama has an old, old china doll that she played with when she was a little girl?”
“She won’t let us touch it, but sometimes she’ll let us look at it. You want to see it?” Carol asked.
Margaret hesitated, but then said, “O.K.”
The china doll had its own little metal swing, which Mama set up in the middle of the table. She positioned the doll on the seat and gave it a push to set it going. “Y’all just look now. Don’t put your hands on her.”
After Mama went back out on the porch, I stared at the doll’s head, then looked back at Margaret’s head. The doll had shiny, painted-on black hair. I had a great idea.
“Margaret,” I said, “do you like the doll? Do you like her hair?” Margaret eyed me with suspicion. Any mention of hair probably made her wonder what was coming next.
“I guess so,” she said.
“I could color some hair on your head like that,” I offered.
“No, you couldn’t,” Carol said.
Margaret didn’t know it then, but her future hung in the balance at that moment. She waited a long time, holding onto a blue crayon, and looking back and forth between me and Carol. “No,” she said, but there was hesitance in her voice.
I persisted. “It’d be pretty, like Mama’s doll.”
Margaret looked at the doll, and back at me. “You sure?” she asked.
“I can try,” I said, “if you really want me to.”
Margaret glared at both of us. “My mama would be mad,” she said.
“Even if it looks like that?” I asked and pointed at the doll.
“Maybe not,” Margaret said. She laid down her crayon, moved her chair over closer to mine, and closed her eyes.
She looked so sweet with those long lashes lying against her pink cheeks that it made me ache to help her. I also wanted to be a hero, which I would be if I could help. Unfortunately, as Carol predicted, the crayon didn’t work The color didn’t come off on Margaret’s head like it did on paper. It hardly even made a mark. Carol inspected my effort, and then said, “Mama’s got that old box of water colors. I know where she keeps it.”
She went and got the tin paint box from behind the Babbo under the bathroom sink where Mama had hidden it. We decided on black, like the doll’s hair and I got busy mixing a few drops of water into the dried square of paint with the little brush. When I dabbed some of the paint onto Margaret’s head, it seemed for a few minutes like it was going to work. I made swirls that I hoped looked like curls, and had an idea that I could even paint on a bow. But, then, the paint started to drip and run down Margaret’s neck and onto her dress.
Carol said, “You’re making a mess,” and I saw pretty quickly that she was right. There was no way the dripping paint was going to look anything like hair, not even like the hair on the china doll. I was defeated.
“I’m sorry,” I told Margaret, trying to find some saving grace, “but, you know, it could be that the paint on your head might make your hair grow.”
“That’s stupid,” Carol said.
We dragged a chair over to the kitchen sink and had Margaret kneel on it with her head under the spigot. I rubbed at the paint on her scalp with a dish towel, but it only smeared and dripped more of it on her face and dress.
Then, a strange thing happened. Margaret started giggling. “It tickles,” she said. We had never heard her laugh. We had never even seen her smile. At that moment, with black paint streaked all over Margaret’s head and down her face, Carol and I knew that we were in big trouble, but hearing Margaret laugh, we started giggling, too.
Back then, all the women Mama’s age wore oxfords, the kind that laced up and had low heels. You could hear them coming from across the house, clicking out a warning. We were doubled over giggling at the sink with Margaret’s paint-smeared head dripping black water down on her yellow dress when we heard the clicks of, not just one, but two women. Mrs. Calhoun had come over to bring Margaret home. Mama sang out in her high pitched, tinny voice, “You girls sound like you’re having some fun!”
We heard Mrs. Calhoun say to Mama, “It’s so nice you got Margaret to play with the girls.” Then the clicking stopped and they were standing in the kitchen doorway. Mrs. Calhoun screeched, “Margaret!”
Mama turned white and collapsed against the table. She had a bad heart. “You girls! What in the world? I can’t believe you doing this. I am so ashamed of you!” She turned to Mrs. Calhoun and fell all over herself apologizing, but Mrs. Calhoun was busy yanking Margaret out of the chair and telling her what a poor baby she was. She didn’t seem to hear any of Mama’s pleas.
After the Calhouns left, Mama told us to go home. She said she didn’t want to see either one of us for the foreseeable future. I have neglected to tell you that Mama had fourteen grandchildren, and that Carol and I were not her favorites. Of course, she would have had her tongue cut out before she would admit she showed any favoritism among us. She liked us O.K., I guess, but she didn’t dote on us like she did some of the others.
By the time I got back to my house, my mother knew all about what happened and had already gotten out her wooden hair brush, the one she used to beat me. She grabbed my arm and threw me onto my bed on my stomach, which was her preferred position to have me in while she wailed away at my butt and legs. My own tactic was to bite into the quilt on my bed to keep from screaming. It was my way of defying her to not cry for as long as I could hold back. “I don’t know what to do with you!” she yelled, over and over. That was what she usually said when she tore into me, and it was right, she didn’t, motherless child that she was herself.
Later on that evening when my daddy came home, I heard mother and him talking in the living room while I was in my room. That was how it always happened. When you are seven, you pretty much know who is who and what is what and how all the pieces fit together. She never beat me when he was there, then when he came home, she’d tell him how bad I’d been. Daddy came in to my room, “How you doing, Judygirl? You been upsetting your mother again?”
When I saw him, I started crying and threw myself around his waist. “We were trying to make some hair for Margaret.”
He sat down on my bed and held me while he looked up and down my legs for bruises, which he found, but didn’t say anything about. “You’ve got to learn to get along with your mother, now. You know that.” Then he asked how we were thinking we could make hair for Margaret and I told him.
Later, when I was drifting off to sleep, I heard snatches of angry words between my parents – “Bruises on her legs!”, and “Won’t mind me!”, and “I’ve told you time and again to stop it! She’s just a child!” and “Beating!” and “I’m not beating! I’m spanking!” It wasn’t new.
A few weeks later, after Mama had relented and Carol and I were playing in front of her house, we saw Margaret across the street. “You want to come play?” Carol called to her.
“I can’t play with you,” Margaret yelled. She was wearing shorts and was barefooted. “My mama won’t let me, but I want to show you something.”
Carol and I crossed the street to the sidewalk outside the Calhoun’s fence. “What?” Carol asked.
Margaret dipped her head down toward us. “Look!”
Her head was covered with a fine coat of pale, downy, blonde hair. You had to get right on top of it in the sunlight to see it, but it was there. “Can I touch it?” I asked.
Carol and I both petted Margaret’s head and all of us grinned and giggled until Mrs. Calhoun stepped out the back door and called out for Margaret to come inside.
Margaret turned six that summer and started school at Annie Belle Clark Grammar School in September with a full head of short, platinum blonde curls. Carol and I were in third grade that year, but we’d see Margaret sometimes on the playground. We took a proprietary interest in her hair as it grew into full, lush locks. It was sad for Mrs. Calhoun that just as Margaret fulfilled her dream of a Shirley Temple look-alike daughter, Margaret turned into a Tom Boy and refused to wear the clothing for the part.
Judith Ireland‘s origins are in the South. She spent the first half of her life among alligators in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, where she raised three children to adulthood and had a career as a family therapist for the Navy. She came to the Bay Area in the late 1980’s, and now lives in Alameda with her husband and little Maltese. She is working on a compilation of stories about her childhood and adolescence, each of which is focused on a different friend.
Copyright 2016 Judith Ireland. All Rights Reserved.