“I…have another cup of coffee with my mother. We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.”
-Joan Didion (1934--)
Almost immediately after moving in to the White House, It became my nightly ritual to nearly set myself on fire.
The White House utilized a series of floor furnaces for heat. They were brown and tan metal things that stood two feet high with porcelain teeth that radiated the heat from the blue gas flame. I came to regard them affectionately like an elder lady relates to her favored poodles.
I loved heat even then and nearly to my detriment.
I would stand in front of the floor furnace in the living room, preheating the backside of my polyester nightgown. The challenge was always to race up the stairs and leap into bed with lightning speed in order to take full advantage of the singe of the gown on my skin before the heat dissipated. I learned the trick was to overheat the gown so that it would withstand the inevitable aerodynamics and hyper cooling that occurred when the air whipped around my body as I flew to my bed. More often than not, I pushed the gown beyond its melting point. Standing there, beads of sweat forming between my shoulder blades, certain of the glorious singe that awaited me at the top of the stairs if I could just hold out a minute more, smoke whisping in erratic spirals over my head... one of my parents, usually my mother, would “put me out” just after my gown melted to my skin but just before I burst into open flame.
I am still a lover of heat and find it oddly comforting that something like that, preference, has followed me through hallways and eras, that I am familiar with that little girl in the polyester night gown. Somewhere inside me, she is searching out the warm places and huddling greedily over them while thin rings of smoke wreath her head.
Twice a week, my mother laid Seth down for a nap in the awkward chair room and began making arrangements to wash mine and my sister’s hair in the kitchen sink. As a mother, I think it seems like the hard way to go about things to separate hair-washing from bath time. But my mother has never been overly concerned with doing things the easy way. And if there is anything I have learned about motherhood, it is this: Sometimes we find our own way. Do what works for you and let others do what works for them. While I have not ever subscribed to it, washing her daughters’ hair in the kitchen sink was my mother’s own brand of parenting. It worked for her.
So, twice a week she laid a thick bath towel on the counter where I would lay up to my shoulders, my neck and head dangling in the sink like a really comfortable guillotine. She would pile potato chips on my belly and then search for the perfect level of warmth on the faucet settings like a pilot at the dials of a Victorian Airship. The water trickled down my scalp in perfect, warm streams. She massaged my head in deep long movements. My eyes would close; a faint, pleasant dream calling to me from a long way off. And then suddenly and without fail, she would curl her fingers under and dig her nails in as she grated the top layers of dirt and sweat and skin and cranial bones in rapid movements, as if she were pursuing swift and evasive fleas or black spot.
Tears streamed down my cheeks, though I wasn’t crying. Apparently, my brain disapproved of my decision not to cry and sent the tears anyway.
After the spiritual cleansing ritual, she would condition my hair starting with the same deep tissue massage. Usually by this time, my stores of potato chips were depleted and the nerves under my scalp were on high alert so I was more vocal in my protest as she began to run her fingers through my long tangled brown hair. She attacked those snarls with a righteous anger, a holy fury any good Baptist could tap in a heartbeat. She dragged a comb through my hair with the ferocity of a rake through brambles that had been set on fire due to an infestation of snakes.
By the end of it, she and I were both sweaty and out of sorts. I’d scurry off with one last sympathetic glance to my sister as my mom started the whole process again, a fresh pile of potato chips and a crazed look in her eye.
The summer after first grade, we moved to Oklahoma, into a neighborhood with modern electrical wiring and sidewalks and a garden club. (And, incidently, into a house up the hill from my future husband. But that is another house, another story altogether...)
Someone has since moved into our White House and painted her pink. With green trim. They no doubt think this is ironic or witty, referring to her as a painted lady at dinner parties.
I just think it’s a little sad. Like a masterpiece in face paint. Like The Venus de Milo in stage make up. Slap some rouge and heavy eye liner on her and you might notice that her arms have fallen off.
Our White House was lovely in her own seductive, understated way. And so she stays in my memory. Perfect even in her imperfection.