I was just doing my job, pulling comparable properties to prepare a report for a prospective client, when I clicked on a listing that didn’t even ring a bell until I saw the picture. I caught my breath as I beheld it. Martha’s Beauty Salon. I knew it was for sale, but it was a concept really. A theory. But seeing the little yellow house with white trim where so many beloved childhood memories were made plastered on the First Multiple Listing Service tore open a place in my heart. And then I did something I really should not have done. I started looking through the photos.
My aunt Martha was my Dad’s sister, older than him by 3 years. Born in 1925 she blazed her own path long before women’s rights opened doors. A tiny dynamo, she became a hairdresser at a young age and for as long as I remember ran her beauty salon.
It was a bustling place and a wonderland to a little country girl that had three brothers and not much in the way of a girlie girl lifestyle. The white, ornate wrought iron furniture (still in the salon) with floral cushions, the faux, baroque gold rimmed mirrors, all of it was palatial to me. Aqua Net hair spray wafted through the air, mixed with the sulfur of perm solution and the hum of the dryers in the next room, all mixed with the chatter of a half dozen or more ladies getting their hair done. And at the center was Martha, red (usually, sometimes blonde, brunette or whatever mood struck her) hair piled high on her head, shampooing heads, checking under dryers and answering the little black rotary phone…”Beauty Salon”.
Please, I’d beg my mama, when Martha would ask me to come spend the night. Before the yes was fully out of her mouth I’d run pack my little bag. We would climb into her car, a big new LTD or Cadillac, with AIR CONDITIONING! I was a princess. She would often take me shopping or we would go out to dinner somewhere, me so excited I could hardly eat a bite in those fancy places!
In the morning, I would go over with her to open the beauty salon. The little window unit air conditioner would rattle on. That phone would start ringing. “Beauty Salon.” An appointment book would be full before lunchtime.
In 1966 a song became a huge hit, “The Ballad of the Green Beret”. I was four and sang it all the time. For a blue Vick’s Salve jar full of pennies, I would stand in a chair in the salon and sing it for all the ladies, some of the them laughing, some clasping their hands over their mouth at this little girl belting out, “…put silver wings upon his chest…” At the end, along with my jar of pennies, I would get a huge ovation. Martha would be smiling at me so proudly. What was there not to love about this place?
Martha retired and spent years caring for her sister, Mable and her brother, Howard, then her husband when he was diagnosed with cancer. She moved into an assisted living home a few years before she passed away. But every time I visited her, that hair was fixed, she was dressed nicely, makeup on.
Once, I’d stopped in at her house after she retired. She was taking her hair down out of curlers.
“Oh,” I said, “are you going somewhere? I’ll leave so you can get ready.”
“Oh, no,” she smiled, “Every morning, I get up, get my bath, do my makeup and hair and then,” her eyes twinkled and she shrugged her little shoulders, “I’m ready for anything!”
I carried that advice with me. After I started working from home, my daughters asked me why I got up and got ready every day and I told them the Martha story, even mimicking the shrug. Yes, I like being ready for anything.
When she was in her last days in hospice care, I went every day to see her. I’d lost my dad the year before so I knew any day could be the last one. The last time I saw her, as in the previous days, she had been unresponsive. And she was even tinier than ever. I sat by her bed with a hospice nurse. The nurse said, “Talk to her. She can hear you.” I stood up and walked over, smoothing back the hair that had gone white now. “I love you, Martha,” I said, “I love you so much.” Her eyelids fluttered. One. Two. Three times. I love you. “See?” the nurse said, “she hears you.” I bent down and kissed her cheek. “I love you and I’ll come see you tomorrow.” Again, three flutters.
But there was no tomorrow. Word came the next morning. My heart bore a new hole that nothing would fill.
I click through the pictures on the listing. I’m six years old again, walking through that front door. I can see Martha and her daughter in law bent over the sinks washing hair. In the wrought iron chairs are clients thumbing through True Story and Market Basket magazines. The little black phone is ringing off the hook. I’ve got a shiny dime in my palm for that beloved Cocola machine and I head to the dryer room where the ladies gossip over the hum. And just before my precious daydream is over, the ringing of the phone stops and I hear Martha’s sweet voice answer…”Beauty Salon.”