In my small-town school, there were two categories of children - you were either a "country kid" or a "town kid". I was a "country kid" - the sixth child of seven born to an Iowa farm couple. My family was "poor" by the world's (and the town kids') standards, but I didn't know it until I started school. I heard the snickers they didn't try very hard to hide, and I was teased unmercifully. Despite the snickers and teasing, it took me a while to find out why they treated me like the dirt that was our family's livelihood. I didn't feel "poor." To the contrary, I had every thing a girl needed: good, wholesome food whenever I was hungry, a roof (that only leaked when it rained) over my head, and lots of clothes to wear. I didn't know that wearing your big brothers' hand-me-downs wasn't "normal" for a little girl.
My best friend and one of my closest neighbors growing up in rural Iowa was Luann. She was almost exactly six months older that I was, and her family lived a mile and half away down the dusty gravel road. When we became teenagers, we would walk to each other’s houses, or meet at the powerplant - a neighborhood landmark that sat on the corner halfway between us. We would often reminisce our childhood, and I loved to hear her talk about how long my hair used to be - how she used to watch that one yellow curl bounce over the center of my bottom as I climbed the steps of the school bus and trotted down the aisle to plop down beside her.
Having those long curls brushed out was a painful experience for me – and for my mom. As farm-wife, she was always so busy – sweating as she toted five-gallon buckets of feed and water to the pigs and hosing down the pens to make mud so they could wallow; lovingly raising furry yellow baby chicks into fat clucking, white chickens; butchering and cleaning the hens for dinner or for freezing; gathering, washing, and crating dozens and dozens of eggs to sell in town; preparing, planting, and tending her abundant vegetable garden; cleaning, snapping, shelling, husking, and cutting the bounty that fed us all summer; canning and freezing that same bounty that continued to feed us all winter. Endless, endless work. I hope it was a labor of love for her. I think it probably was.
Who could blame that saint of a mother for wanting to untangle her squirming and shrieking little girl’s snarled mess of rats’ nests as quickly as she could? So much to do; so few hours of daylight. I liked it much better when one of my big sisters brushed it out instead. More gentle…less hurried…taking time to talk with me. They would start with the ends, split from wind and sun and wrestling and sleeping, then work their way up, little by little, until the whole snarled mess was free. My sisters were older than I was by 9 and 11 years, and I adored them (most of the time, anyway). They were like grown-ups, only nicer.
Some days were so busy on the farm that no one had time to tame my hair, which made the next session three times worse. Sundays, though, it was ALWAYS brushed out pretty and shining for Sunday School and (if mom had time) church. I had fun learning about Jesus in Sunday school, but loved it when we could go to church. At that age, I didn’t understand, or even listen to, the sermon. I liked to go for the singing. I would stand tall and proud next to mom, and she would hold her hymnal down low so I could read the words and sing them with her. We made a joyful noise to the Lord, and I knew He was smiling down on us. To me, the sermon was just that LOOONNNNGGG time of talking before we could sing again. Mom always carried paper and pens in her purse, and I would draw pictures while the reverend talked and talked and talked. When I finally heard the first note of the organ rise up again, my heart began to echo it's joyous notes, and up I’d pop, pens and paper scattered on the scarred old wooden pew. When the service was over, families filed out, voices joined in singing "Blest be the Tie that Binds," stopping in the vestibule to shake the reverend’s hand, then visiting in front of the church with friends not seen for weeks. The visiting part I found dull, all grown-up talk, until someone commented how pretty my hair was. Mom usually found time to bathe me in the old metal wash tub and shampoo and comb my hair on Saturday nights. (I needed to be clean for God, is how I remember it.) Sunday mornings following hair washing were the best brushing days.
At five and a half years of age, I reached my first major milestone: I started kindergarten. I still remember my morning routine from that year: 7:30 – get up and eat breakfast (the news was on TV – BORing); 8:00 – Jack LaLanne (I thought it was fun exercising with him – ahhh youth); 9:00 – Captain Kangaroo (my favorite – I loved Mr. Greenjeans and Mr. Moose and story time); 10:00 – Cartoons and hair-brushing (no, it didn’t take the entire hour to brush it out, but it was done sometime during the cartoons); 11:00 – Eat lunch and get ready for school (no TV then – dad had to listen to the stock reports and other news on KJAN radio); 11:25 – last wash-up (it didn’t take too long, mom always tied a dishtowel around my neck while I ate to protect my school clothes), find my shoes (my shoes were ALWAYS lost – if I didn’t find them and have them on the right feet and tied by the time the school bus came, I was in BIG trouble), and watch for the school bus to come over the hill. If it was cold outside, I waited in the kitchen, peering out the big six-pane window in the door, watching for the bus to crest and then putter down our side of Swede’s Hill. On warm days, I went out to end of the lane early and stood carefully to the side until the bus pulled in, screeked to a stop, and the doors wooshed open. Mr. Nancarrow eventually stopped pulling the big yellow bus into our narrow lane, and instead stopped in the road like he did at a lot of the other houses. I don’t remember what year he trusted my sibs and I to not get run over in the road. But I know for sure one that one thing ended during my kindergarten year: the long, excruciating hair-brushing sessions.
I don’t remember actually getting my hair cut; it must have traumatized me so severely that I buried the experience. But old photographs show me – that was the year I lost my glorious tresses. I was the flower girl at Aunt Lana’s wedding, and in the fading color shapshot of me with my cousin Todd long, blonde curls surround my face. Later that year, in my kindergarten school picture, I am wearing the same pretty, pale-yellow, flower girl dress, but sporting a much different hair-do. Blond, yes, but chopped off to above my ears. I would say it resembled a military basic training hair cut, but the ends are much too un-even and jagged. (In mom’s defense, though, a military barber doesn’t have six other children clamoring for his attention while he tries to make a five year-old sit still for his sharp shears.) Mom must have made the decision that year that I only wish I could make now – the extra time she could spend doing more productive things was worth much more than her five year-old’s vainglorious appearance.
I'm all grown up now. With the adult knowledge I have of how very ill my mom was a that time, plus insight into a mom’s busy day and into the will of God versus my own carnal desires, I understand and can see myself doing the same thing. Well ... maybe. Ok, I can see myself doing it, but only in my minds’ eye. In actuality, I am not yet as faithful as mom was at ignoring the demon of vanity. For example, at 43, I finally have my long curls back. But I AM getting there, albeit slowly. Mom may be gone in body, but in spirit she lives – singing through my memories, filling my heart, and gently guiding my spirit as I struggle with my adult growing pains. I am growing up in Christ.