Friday, October 12, 2012

Why I've always avoided Beauty Parlors.



What I remember most is the smell. Not the orange hunger of the flames as they devoured first the sleeve of her baby blue terry cloth robe, then the broad back, then the long curling black strands of her hair. Not the sound of her astonishment at the sharp bite of the flames, not the frenzy that propelled her shrieks into the morning air. Not even the aftertaste of smoke and ash that would later settle in the back of my two year old throat. What has stayed with me longest, deepest is the smell. The burning smell. Not the burning pure cotton of the terry cloth. Although it burned. Not the acrid smell of burnt skin or flesh. Though they too burned. But the smell of her hair, burning. It is the one thing that even across the broad expanse of these forty-eight years, I still cannot shake. The smell of hair-burning. Her hair. And if a human being is on fire in front of you, it shouldn't matter who it is, the experience sears into memory like a white hot brand into the flank of a cattle. But she was, is still, my mother. Aflame and fighting, twisting, swinging, swatting at the orange beast which had mounted her back. Then stumbling across the room towards the open door which lead to the basement.

I was seated at the kitchen table, facing her, looking at Mark, whose back was to her. We were waiting on breakfast, on oatmeal, a favorite. She was at the stove, the long blue sleeves of her bath robe swished elegantly through the air as she moved. We were two hungry toddlers, banging spoons against the sides of our green plastic bowls, singing, chanting, in anticipation of breakfast, my favorite meal. It was Spring, another kind of fire, mid-morning sunlight poured through the window to the left of her, through the doorway to my immediate right. It was an ordinary day, like any other. Unlike any other. What I remember most is the smells, of the kitchen, of Spring, of oatmeal, of grease loosening on the hot top of the stove. Of my mother's hair being greedily eaten by the bright lips of leaping flame.
I don't remember the ambulance's arrival, but well into my forties, ambulance was the single word I couldn't pronounce correctly. I recall little of the three months she spent in Intensive Care, burns scarring forty percent of her body, infection a constant threat. I remember that we then lived only two blocks from one of the best Burn Units in the country and that they tried some new experimental techniques. I don't remember the nine months I spent living with friends while she recovered. I do remember how she was changed when she came home. How she never wore sleeveless garments anymore. How she gave up two packs a day and bourbon neat. I do remember that her hair grew back, how fortunate she was that because of its length, her scalp itself never burned badly enough to scar and destroy the follicles.

I remember how, as a kid, if I entered a neighbor's house and someone was using a hot comb, I would have to turn and leave straight away. It wasn't the sight of the iron teeth glowing red on the gas burners. I never got that close. It was the smell wrapping its thick gray fingers around my throat long before I ever made it to their kitchen. It is why to this day, even fifty years later, I have never set foot in a black beauty parlor.

And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon.)
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