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 Aunt Hazel’s Magic Hairspray

Updated: Jun 5

When I was little, my mother would dump me at Aunt Hazel’s ramshackle two-story saltbox on Kissena Boulevard, and go off to follow her dreams of becoming an industrial real estate agent, or next-life doula, or any of her other improbable occupations. My mother’s ambitions were sporadic and haphazard but deeply felt, and Aunt Hazel understood that. It ran in the family. She, after all, had been a champion rower in the Osprey Oars’ Crew, a first rate spelunker, and ballroom instructor, as well as a denizen of the mosh pit.  

After giving me some last-minute instructions and warnings, I got out of the car, and my mother sped off. It was as nice to get her out of my hair for a few hours as it must have been to get me out of hers. Most of the time, we were sick of each other.

Hazel wasn’t my aunt’s real name; it was Hermina, which she despised. When she was younger, she changed it. That was badass of her. She’d just up and changed her own name, without anyone’s permission and not caring a toss about how my maternal grandparents might feel about it. She lived alone with her three dogs, and had never been married because, as she put it, “That’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

I rang the bell and she would come out onto the porch–the pugs making a horrible racket–unlock the screen door and let me in. On her tiny feet, she wore open-toed house slippers with a heel. Even so, she was barely five feet tall. To compensate, she had mastered the art of big hair. Every time I saw her, it was coiffed and colored differently. (She taught me this word, ‘coif’.) Aunt Hazel was a sculptor whose tools were the teasing comb and the blow-dryer, a deft master of attitude. Some days she answered the door looking as wild as Beethoven, other days smarmy like Liberace, and once in a while, with her hair piled up in a painful-looking pagoda-shaped bun, tight enough to count as a semi-facelift. I told her it looked too severe, and she just asked me how I was doing at school, making like she hadn’t heard what I said.

Her fake eyelashes became moth-like as the day wore on and the gun metal eye shadow fell on them like powder. Sometimes, I would sleep over. I couldn’t wait to see her bedtime ritual, how she did her toilette in reverse and was then was aghast to find out she didn’t have one. She would go to sleep with all that crap still on her face. Another thing I noticed: she had a four-inch X tattooed on her ankle in a typewriter letter style. She said it was an LA band she used to follow around the country to see, and her favorite song was “Los Angeles.” She knew all the words and got so excited that she jumped up on the couch and danced maniacally. I giggled because she was so small she looked like a crazy gnome, and because you're not supposed to do this. I jumped on the couch with her and yelled “Los Angeles!” mimicking my aunt’s gusto. Then we played the song three more times and laughed until we were breathless—and not one hair stood out of place on her head.

“Want some ice cream?” she grinned, and I nodded emphatically.

As we ate vanilla-choco swirl, I asked her how she managed to keep her hair so in place.

“Because I have the best hairspray money can buy.”

“Can I see?”

She looked at me warily, and then relaxed.

“Sure. We can even do your hair if you want.”

I don’t know what possessed my aunt to do such an extravagant number on my ordinary school girl hair, but when my mother saw me that evening, she went apeshit. I sat in the car peeking out at the two of them fighting on the lawn while I peered into the side rearview mirror to admire my Louis XIV bouffant. I thought it looked cool the way it flipped up so stiffly at the ends. 

“ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FLIPPIN' MIND?” bellowed my mother.

“Oh, for fucksake, Carol! You have no sense of humor!”

“She can’t go to school like that tomorrow!”

“Why not?”

“Why not? Because she’ll get laughed at! You know how mean kids are!”

“You don’t know that!”

“You are such a pain in my ass!”

“Says the witch of Massapequa!”

Then my mother lunged at Aunt Hazel and grabbed her beautiful coiffure, and the two of them started clinching around the lawn, deadlocked, like two tired roughhousing boxers. I lowered the window to get a better view. My aunt was choking my mother with her strong little hands, and my mother involuntarily let go of her hair, which was miraculously intact, as fresh as when we touched it up in the bathroom prior to the front yard drama.

They exchanged a few more vicious remarks that I didn’t quite understand, and then my mother got in the car, her mascara streaming, and she accelerated so hard the tires screeched. I looked over at her and she was still fuming. I thought it better to not mention that Aunt Hazel had given me a brand-new can of Aqua Net and one of her teasing combs to practice with.

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