91: Grandma’s Trade Secret

91: Grandma’s Trade Secret

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Grandma’s Trade Secret

If nothing is going well, call your grandmother.

~Italian Proverb

In the African-American community, there is an old, albeit incorrect, notion that hair is like cholesterol — there are good and bad versions. Fortunately, as the granddaughter of the late Edna Tucker, I never paid much consideration to said labels, because when Grandma Tucker did your hair the only possible way it could come out was good.

I didn’t know how she did it; I only knew that when divine intervention (my grandma’s hands) touched charcoal-colored wool (my hair), the end result would be one that defied logic. And, much to my delight, I also knew that I could depend on this. It was a constant. Like stars in the sky, cartoons on Saturday mornings, and first-day-of-school jitters.

It was a particularly hot and steamy evening in late August of 1989, and I was very, very concerned. As I snapped the new fluorescent-colored folders into my Trapper Keeper and then splayed my brand new outfit across the chair in my room, I mindfully kept one eye on what was going on outside. The clouds were dark and ominous, and the air was thick and heavy with humidity. On an ordinary day, this wouldn’t have bothered me, but this was no ordinary day. I was, in fact, preparing for what I then considered to be a life-altering occurrence: junior high. And the prospect of facing this momentous experience with unruly hair that resembled — in my own words — “cotton candy poofs,” was unthinkable. My mother, bless her heart, knew what was at stake here. “You’d better call Grandma,” she said.

My mother was spot-on because no one could do hair like Grandma. Grandma’s prowess in the hair beautification department was like the eighth wonder of the world. No, Grandma wasn’t a card-carrying hairdresser, but as the mother of four daughters, she had certainly learned a trick or two.

“Grandma,” I pleaded into the phone. “Can you come over and do my hair?”

She waited a beat, sighed, and then replied with a giggle, “Sure, sugar. I’m on my way.”

I am not exaggerating when I say that my pulse returned to its normal rate as soon as I saw Grandma ambling up the walkway with her big black canvas tote bag filled with her arsenal of tools.

The enemy? Frizz. And it didn’t stand a chance.

Having just washed and blown dry my hair, I sat patiently at the kitchen table as Grandma drew items from the bag and laid them before me on a pink cotton towel: A jar of pomade with a well-worn label; a black plastic comb; a few sheets of paper towel; a portable stove; and, last but certainly not least, a pressing comb. Anticipation welled up inside me as I watched my grandmother plug the tiny metal stove into a nearby outlet and place the pressing comb inside the stove’s opening. As she waited for the pressing comb to heat up, she began to divide my hair into four sections and carefully apply the pomade. The sheer thought that, within an hour’s time, my hair would become bone straight, silky, and shiny had my stomach turning over like a rotisserie chicken.

Finally, Grandma would run a piece of paper towel along the back of the comb and an ever-so-faint caramel line would appear: The comb was ready. She then proceeded to gently work the comb through various parts of my hair while I remained as still as a block of ice. I did manage to hold up a mirror from time to time in hopes of catching a glimpse of Grandma’s trade secret, that indiscernible thing she did that made all her tools work that much better, but I was left scratching my head every time (no pun intended). Afterward, I helped Grandma pack up her things and we’d sit and chat about what I had considered to be items of utter importance: running track, algebra, and my crush on a boy named Billy. When the time came, I kissed her goodbye, most appreciative that my dark mane now danced about my shoulders — and that someone had tolerated my rambling about a boy whose name I am surprised I still remember.

It rained like the dickens on the first day of seventh grade, but my hair remained intact. I still have no idea how Grandma did it. My grandma passed away in 1991 — a few years after that memorable humid evening, and a few years before I began to straighten my own hair. My mother and her sisters still maintain that the secret was in Grandma’s wrist: “It was the way she turned the comb,” my mother says, flicking her wrist with a closed fist.

I tend to agree. Sure, Grandma’s wrist played a part. But her heart was in it, too.

~Courtney Conover

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