Monday, September 5, 2011

Isabelle’s Curls and How I Learned to Love Them

I stood up in my crib at 6 months, walked at 11 months and by 12 months was running around the house giving my Mother a massive case of the New Mom Jitters. I did everything early, except grow hair.

Then, suddenly, at about 18 months of age the fuzz on my head was replaced by strawberry blonde, Shirley Temple ringlets to the delight of my Mother and Grandmother, both of whom had poker straight hair.

Finally, after having skipped two generations, there was a little girl in the family who had Isabelle’s curls.

My Great-Grandmother Isabelle was 12 years old when this portrait was painted in 1865, the year General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, thus ending the American Civil War. The portrait hangs in my bedroom next to my dresser and the coral and gold necklace around her neck sits in a velvet pouch in my jewelry case.

She is holding a bouquet of pink roses and wearing a white satin dress with blue ribbons on the sleeves. A matching blue ribbon holds back a beautiful head of chestnut curls – Isabelle’s curls.

Her favorite brother, Willie, left home at 17 to fight in the Union Army and was never seen or heard from again.

Her Mother, Rosetta, spent a good deal of the war nursing wounded Union soldiers. Unbeknownst to Rosetta, one of those dying young men was infected with Small Pox, a deadly, disfiguring disease which spread like wildfire through Confederate and Union troops alike.

It swept through Isabelle’s entire family. Miraculously, she survived with only a tiny scar on her forehead to remind her of the horror through which she had passed. The high fevers had made her beautiful hair fall out, but a year later when this portrait was painted, her curls had already grown back well past her shoulders.

I never thought much about Isabelle’s legacy to me until the 1960s. Almost overnight curly hair became horribly unfashionable. Whether long and parted in the middle or short and cut in angles, hair had to be straight, straight, straight, and my hair was not, not, not! So, I declared war on my curls and my weapons of choice were juice cans and the steam iron.

Like so many of my curly-haired sisters, we grew it long and set it in huge rollers or juice cans. And if that didn’t work, there was always the steam iron. You’d lay your hair out flat, put a dishcloth over it and then iron the cloth. It was essential to have a trusted girlfriend help you with this, preferably one whose boyfriend you hadn’t flirted with the night before or you might end up as a burnt offering.

By the ‘70s it had become clear that I was on the losing side of my private civil war and so, as General Robert E. Lee had manfully surrendered his sword to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in 1865, I surrendered my juice cans and steam iron as spoils of war.

But, by the 1980s big hair and curls were back – bigger and better than ever! True to the battle cry of the South, the curl had risen again!!

This was my decade and I luxuriated in it. All I had to do was stick a diffuser on the end of my blow dryer, point and fire and there was no end to how big my hair could get.

I defied rain and laughed in the face of humidity. Ha! Ha! Bring it on, you fools!! You only make my hair bigger!!

I love you, Great-Grandmother Isabelle!

Unfortunately, the party didn’t last, which is one of the defining qualities of a party. It starts, you drink too much champagne, it ends, you find your shoes and go home.

And so, I went home.

There was a little something for everyone in the 1990s, but without a doubt, it was the decade of all things Rachel, as in Jennifer Aniston and the iconic Rachel layered cut. By the end of the decade, advances in styling products, blow dryers and flat irons had enabled my hairdresser to give me a reasonable facsimile of the Rachel bob. I was delighted, although………the rain I had defied and the humidity I had laughed at in the 1980s would and did have their revenge whenever they felt like it.

A year ago my hairdresser introduced me to a line of hair care products which have made me fall in love with my curls all over again. Deva-Curl products are specially made for curly hair. Curly hair is more fragile, should be washed less frequently and needs extra moisture. In effect, it needs special handling and special products.

The Deva-Curl products are sulfate and phosphate free and safe for color-treated hair. They leave my hair with healthy, shiny, no-frizz curls. If you have curly hair and want to stay natural, Deva-Curl products are absolutely the way to go.

Believe me. I wouldn’t trust Isabelle’s curls to anything less.


  1. Great story! I love family histories. Also, am currently reading a biography of Margaret Mitchell, so Southern culture really appeals.

  2. What a chock-full of interesting tidbits kind of post; I enjoyed the story of your grandmother and the overview of curls in and curls out through the decades. I've always wanted poker straight hair, but have wavy, thick hair that will do what it's told to do (curl, straighten out, etc.) but it takes so much WORK. So mostly, I let it do what it wants to do - be wavy and full, and everyone thinks I have to work for that, which is fine, and I always get the same "results" - not matter what. I let it be. : )

    Have a good Labor Day weekend and a good hair day, M-T!

  3. I can SO identify with you! Like you, I struggled with my natural curls until the 80s, when I was the envy of all my friends. Now, thanks to great flat-irons and products, I can go curly or straight as the mood takes me (except, of course, when high humidity dictates my hairstyle.)

    I think it's awesome that you know so much about your ancestry and even have mementoes from that era.

    Great post, great blog...

    Cindy @ Notes in the Key of Life

  4. What interesting timing, Shelley, on your reading material.

    To my two Cynthias, I so enjoy getting your wonderful comments and knowing that we share the same curly hair history. What fun!

  5. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    What a valuable post and with such a great tip at the end. I might have to look into this Deva-Curl brand. My hair used to be more straight but gets more and more curly with age. Also due to the use of Prednisone for two years it became so damaged and dry. Thanks a lot!

    1. Dear Mariette,

      You must let me know how you like the Deva-Curl products. You can go on line and order a sample kit. That way, you can see which of the products works best for you. Every woman's hair has its own individual characteristics and needs specialized care, especially curly hair, which definitely has a mind of its own. Curly hair definitely needs lots of moisture to look its best, but not so much that it gets limp....a delicate balance.

      Let me know hwo you make out.


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