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Memories of Beauty Parlor Visits With Mom

In the 1960s, a weekly trip to the hairdresser was a special time

By Leslie Handler

The noise of the blow dryer caused Deborah Aquilino, known as Deb, to raise her voice as she spoke in the New Jersey hair salon where she works. Her five-foot nothing frame was barely noticeable over her generous personality as she told me the story that hurt her feelings. One of Deb's friends relayed the conversation she had with her daughter, saying that if all her daughter wanted in life was to "just do hair" then she wasn't paying to send her to college.

Beauty Parlor
Deborah Aquilino (standing) and Gabrielle Stutman (seated)  |  Credit: Courtesy of Leslie Handler

Knowing Deb and hearing the story about her friend made me wonder just what it was that made this mom think her daughter's desire to be a hairdresser was not an important job and not worthy of furthering her education. It made me wonder why anyone wouldn't want to further her child's education under any conditions and it also made me wonder why hairdressers like my friend Deb aren't more valued in our society.

The 'Standing Appointment' at the Beauty Parlor

The story made me remember how, back in the '60s, my mom had what was called a "standing appointment" at a beauty parlor in Dallas called "Coiffeur D'Europe" (now long gone). These were regular appointments without the need for calls to schedule them. Fridays were coveted standing appointments because that was the day to get a fresh hairdo so you looked good for the weekend.

I often went to these appointments with my mom. I had my case of Barbie dolls to occupy me. Sitting there, I heard the snap of the black plastic smock as I watched the stylist place it over the white towel she had wrapped around my mom's neck. She leaned her over the sink to wash my mom's hair, but back then, her hair wasn't just being washed. There was a young woman who knew how to get the temperature of the water just right. She had magic hands that massaged Mom's head until she closed her eyes and her whole body relaxed. It was part of the special treatment that all women got when they went to get their hair done.

A Hairdresser's Superpowers

Surrounded by my Barbie town — orange plastic camper on one side, luxury townhome on the other, tiny plastic high heels and vast amounts of clothes — I quietly watched as they moved Mom from the shampoo chair to the hairdresser's chair. The hairdresser pumped the foot pedal at the base of the chair until Mom looked like she was up on a pedestal. She would lovingly touch Mom's hair as they discussed what style was best. The hairdresser had this superpower to cut hair and chat at the same time. Once Mom's hair was cut, big pink rollers usually appeared on a cart with wheels. Mom's hair was skillfully rolled into rows of curlers held in with silver metal clips.

The next chair they put Mom in was the dryer chair where they placed a big clear plastic bubble from the back of the chair over Mom's head. Then they turned on the fan that blew warm heat onto her hair to dry it. Everyone's voices got louder. Anyone talking to Mom had to yell so they could be heard over the blower and even Mom shouted at everyone else, not in anger, but in an effort to hear her own voice as she spoke.

Enjoying a Special Experience

I got two dimes to go to the vending machine to buy two big ice-cold bottles of soda; Tab for my mom and Coca-Cola for me. Icy water droplets made my hands all wet as I placed each bottle on the side of the machine, wedging the tops under the metal piece to pry off the bottle caps. I always took that first freezing sip before handing Mom hers. The first sip was always the best.


After what always felt like forever, Mom's hair was finally dry. You could tell because they lifted the bubble off her head and unrolled one of the curlers to feel her hair. When it was dry, the pink rollers were removed and the setting lotion made her hair freeze in that rolled-up position. Back in the hairdresser's chair, the crunchy stiff curls were combed out into a soft style. Often Mom had them pin her hair up with black bobby pins, which matched her hair color.

When the style was complete, that's when the can of lacquer came out. Mom put her hands over her face while they sprayed what seemed like half the can over her hair. Then Mom always took the can in her own hands and sprayed just a little more for good measure. She wouldn't be back to the beauty parlor for a week, so her hairdo had to last.

I felt special when I got to go with her and talk with the grown-ups about all the latest news. I felt special when I got to buy a Coke. But the best part was watching my mom as she looked into the mirror just as she was leaving the salon — I could see a lovely grin appear on my mother's face. Her look was complete, making her feel ready to face the world. The hairdresser made her feel that way.

Still Wanting to Look Her Best

My mom is in her eighties now and lives in Georgetown, Texas. Until recently, she was at the salon every Friday. But she is no longer able to drive there and lives in a nursing home. She can't fix her own hair because she never had to. She feels terrible, not due to pain, but because she can't look her best. I live on the other side of the country in Trenton, N.J., so I can't help. And we couldn't find anyone to go to her nursing home to do her hair.

That's why Deb's friend was wrong to belittle her daughter's desire to "do hair" for a living. Deb regularly goes to local nursing homes to do the hair of clients who supported her livelihood over the years. Like my mom, these women lost something when they lost the ability to go to the beauty parlor. They lost the pride of looking their best.

Doing hair is not that different from being a doctor. A doctor can make a woman feel better physically, but it takes someone like Deb to help her look in the mirror so her loved ones can see that decades-old smile that allows her to feel ready to take on the world.

Leslie Handler is an award winning syndicated columnist for Senior Wire News and freelances for such publications as The Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, HuffPost, and Purple Clover.  Her book, Rats, Mice, and Other Things You Can’t Take to the Bank, is available on Amazon. Follow her blog and read previously published essays here. Read More
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