Often, when I was in second grade arithmetic, I would look up from my endless worksheets designed to discourage and disinterest would-otherwise-have-become astrophysicists, to wonder at my teacher’s hair. These were the sixties, and the ultimate goal of hair styling was ‘big as you could get it.’ My teacher sported a swept up bun which increased her head size to a degree that I would have recognized as volume times mass squared if that simple math formula had been known to me yet. I often watched her droning on and thought how much it appeared that she was wearing the wasps’ nest my Dad had smoked out and then detached from under the eaves of our house.
The nest, a bulbous, silver grey creation that swarmed dangerously with insects, was a deceivingly stable structure, as big as cotton candy at a state fair, formed by the spit and labor of the insects and built to survive the elements for multiple seasons. Considering that the aptly named beehive hairstyles were achieved at beauty salons once in a blue moon and meant to last out the month, the construction goals were remarkably similar. Both were painstakingly built to last. The nest survived because of a network of hexagon paper shells, formed from spit and wood mulch, the hairstyle resisted gravitational pull with the clever use of ruthless teasing and enough aerosol shellac to make a bed sheet stand up in a heavy wind. And while only one was designed to house insects, the likely hood of entomological habitation in the hairstyle was not so farfetched. It might not have been wasps, but odds were good that something was living in there. I would watch Ms. Whatever-her-name-was take a pencil and carefully insert it deep into the foamy depths of her bouffant and then scratch furiously. I never saw anything crawl out of it, but my desk was near the back, so I might have missed it.
But times were changing and hairstyles were being dragged along. Women began to opt for the down-with-a-scooping-flip-at-the-bottom style. This involved setting the hair on huge, hollow rollers, and then sleeping in a sitting position or baking under a dryer until the polymer set. It required hours of self-imposed torture, all endured for the sake of appearing in public perfectly groomed. To allow anyone other than family or beauty shop operatives to see oneself mid-process was unthinkable.
So imagine the shrinking of my soul when my mom appeared in the doorway of my classroom wearing rollers the size of coffee cans held in place by aluminum clips in a neat row over and around her head, leaving her looking like a load of sewer pipes strapped down by what appeared to be a shrimping net.
As I slumped low, desperate to appear as incredulous as any of my classmates that some loser’s mother was shameless enough to show up in public worse than naked, she crossed to the teacher and whispered an apology. A quick exchange ensued and then, to my horror, I was identified as the unfortunate offspring of this brazen crazy lady and told to gather my things.
My face burning with red-hot shame and unable to meet the eyes of my brutally judgemental classmates, I got my books and coat and joined my mom at the door.
As we walked down the hall, I kept my eyes on the floor. We passed other teachers and even the principle on the way out and I knew that I would be forever branded as the girl with the indecent mother.
My mom said very little but she seemed pleased. I, on the other hand, could not have been more distressed if she had been walking me toward a firing squad.
Now that I’m a mom who has had the opportunity to embarrass my girls on numerous occasions, I have a different take. Over the years I have had to find varied and creative ways to strike fear into their innocent hearts in order to back up a, shall we call it a…behavioral adjustment.
And the worst thing I could ever threaten them with was public embarrassment. Not theirs, mine. I could threaten, yell, give time outs, devise punishments, but nothing ever worked as well as warning them I would do one of two things; sing or dance in public.
So the other day, when my oldest daughter and I were out having lunch and she showed me a little video she had taken of her boyfriend that morning, I had to smile. The two of them share a small house by the beach with three other guys, all of them surfers. Every morning the first one up quickly bikes or skateboards to one of the nearby beaches and gets a take on the wave conditions. Most days are what they call ‘yellow’, smooth, easy waves, but some days, some very special days, it’s orange.
Orange means waves, it means excitement, it means unexpected and unusual fun.
So when he came on my daughter’s little screen, the boyfriend was singing and dancing, “It’ an orange day! It’s an orange day!” as he went from room to room in the hall, knocking on doors. “Get up! It’s orrrraaaange!” and he did a little dance step on his way to reverse peel himself into gortex, or whatever it is they make those suits out of now.
And I thought, ‘How wonderful, an orange day.’ We all get them sometimes, though not often enough. An orange day could be one that brings an unexpected turn of events, weather that sings for a special event, or opportunities knocking on your bedroom door that weren’t even in the neighborhood the night before.
I’m not a surfer, I’ve done it a few times and liked it very much, but I grew up in Atlanta, far from the surging shore. It was unlikely enough that I became a competitive ice-skater. There was only one undersized rink in town until I was around 12, so everyday, up I would get up at four-thirty and go to the rink for a couple of hours before school to train, and every afternoon I was back, practicing falling, and sometimes learning to defy gravity myself for a few seconds. I loved it.
But since skating was not exactly a regular pastime in the heat and humidity of the deep south, we had only one teacher, and no champions to look up to. No Dorothy Hamils trained at my tiny patch of ice and no Nancy Kerrigans ate Milk Duds with me while the Zamboni smoothed the surface.
My childhood hero was Peggy Fleming, Not only was she the former Olympic champion, but she had these awesome TV specials that I watched with rapture, studying both her style and technique. A Peggy Fleming special was every holiday wrapped up in one for me.
So just imagine my amazement when my mom, saying very little, drove me to the rink in the middle of a school day where some of my fellow skate-o-philes were waiting, and then shocked me to my core when the door opened and in walked Peggy Fleming, in the Fleming flesh.
Turns out, she was in town with Ice Capades. She practiced everyday, never missed one, and since the show was at the stadium and the ice wasn’t in yet, she had gotten in touch with my little Igloo to arrange some private practice time. The owner had told my coach and my coach had chosen a small handful of her students to be there.
When she came in, we all burst into applause. Basically a shy woman, she looked completely taken aback, but she said hello politely and then went to change into her outfit and skates.
Needing to use the restroom, I went to the back and pushed open the door. There, seated on a bench, lacing up her skates, was Peggy Fleming, but not just an Olympic gold medalist I idolized, but an Olympic gold medalist who I idolized in her bra.
Her bra. I saw Peggy Fleming in her underwear.
Why she put on her skates before her top was a mystery to me, but I remember walking toward the mirror and smirking to myself, embarrassed but oddly thrilled to have seen the great woman in her skivvies. Later what I mostly remembered was how tiny she was, I didn’t find out until later that I was far too tall to be a skater, at nine, I wasn’t yet oversized.
But even though I was shorter, that was one of my most orange days. I went back to school and faced the taunts of my classmates about my mother’s steamroller hair curlers with Peggy Fleming’s autograph in my hand. When I displayed my golden prize, they were awed, cowed, and envious. Oh how I loved that feeling. A most orange feeling.
Not everyday will come in a strong hue, some of them will be murky and dull. There will be days of blue or rusty brown. I’ve even had more than my share of black ones, but that day still glows with the brilliance of a sunlit field of California poppies.
My mother embarrassed and thrilled me to such extremes in a single day that I leaned a life lesson.
Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes you have to stop everything and embrace the risk, and sometimes, wonderful things happen when you least expect it, and even when wearing curlers the size of redwood tree trunks in front of a prissy private school classroom, moms can be the coolest ever.
Maybe that’s the reason I still haven’t stopped trying to devise ways to embarrass my girls into living a fuller life.
I probably never will.
I will get up early some days, check the metaphoric surf conditions, find them exceptional, and run dancing from room to room singing, “It’s an orange day!”
And they will cringe first, and smile later.
Just like I did.
Shari, April 11, 2019