Whoa, Muley!

Cleaning through old folders is not an efficient task. An unexpected stack of school pictures took me back to the hair business that symbolized my ambivalent relationship with Mama. I was relieved when she stopped struggling with my hair. The stuff grew prolifically on my head, fine and board straight. If I had only been a 70s child, I would never have had to use an ironing board.

Mama had completely given up on my hair by the time I started to school. She let it grow and put it into pigtails. School pictures show braids meeting on top of my head from each side with back hair hanging down in my first grade picture. Each year, the school pictures showed longer braids. As my hair grew, she turned the pigtails into an asset with ribbons to match my dresses and several ways to put them up that were pretty and different. I willingly sat for her to put my hair in French braids for special occasions. After the braids grew really long, she sometimes looped them up and put the ribbon at the top. Once a girl handed down to me a rather nondescript white eyelet dress with buttons down the front. Mama added bone crochet loops on either side of the buttons and tied each pair together with three colors of narrow ribbon. Then she put the same colors of ribbons on my braids. It was ever so much sharper than the original. By the time I was ten, I plaited the everyday pigtails myself.

A point of pride was that only one other girl about a year older than I was who sometimes visited our community had braids as long. I didn’t even care when the boys took hold of the pigtails and gave a gentle pull, calling, “Whoa, Muley!” It was all in fun. I could have done without the nickname Muley, however, which stuck for a while.

Our bone of contention was not the braids but the bangs. Mama insisted on cutting them straight across just above my eyebrows. When my hair was neatly combed, they provided a nice balance to the long braids hanging behind and covered a rather high forehead. The problem was the bangs seldom hung down. Mississippi heat seemed almost year-round. You may have heard that Southern girls glow or perspire in the heat. Not me. I sweated profusely. I pushed hair that dripped sweat into my eyes straight up. After third grade, all but one of my school pictures shows bangs pushed up, up, and away.

On the whole, my pigtails made me feel special and kept Mama from trying to put one of those foul-smelling permanents in my hair. Mama must have liked them, too, since the next folder I open has the braids, preserved when they were cut in seventh grade with rubber bands on each end.