Big Hair, Big Heart

Mary Frances was everything this 11-year-old girl wanted to grow up to be.

Posted in , Mar 10, 2014

Mary Francis and her big hair in the 1970s

“Make yourself at home!” Mary Frances said. She dropped my suitcase by the shoe rack and waited for me to step inside.

Home? I thought. I’ll never feel at home. I tiptoed through the double doors into the living room. Sunlight streamed through the windows, reflecting off the glass tabletops and polished lamps. Everything was so neat, so organized, so normal. Not like where I was coming from.

My family never opened the windows–they covered them with blinds and curtains. They had secrets they didn’t want the world to know, like their addiction to drinking and prescription pills. It was the seventies, and the inside of our house looked like some kind of lifestyle experiment gone bad.

When I was in sixth grade, my older brothers and I became wards of the state. I went to live in Vidor, Texas, with a foster family–Jimmy, Debbie and their two young daughters.

They did their best to make me comfortable, but I spent most of my weekends babysitting the girls rather than getting to know my sixth-grade classmates. It was a hectic existence for an 11-year-old kid like me.

Then one day a shiny tan Cadillac pulled into the driveway and out stepped Mary Frances, Jimmy’s mother. She had driven almost four hours from Austin to visit her granddaughters, but she still looked fresh in her tailored tan pantsuit, her white-blonde hair fashioned into a puffy bouffant.

Man, I thought, she has style. I mean, a suit that matched her car?

“You must be Carolyn,” she said, looking me square in the eyes. Her fabulous bouffant bounced as she bent toward me. That day, she offered to take me to live with her at her condo for the summer.

Why is a woman like Mary Frances interested in an awkward kid like me? I wondered. Was my foster family just passing me along? Getting rid of me or something?

“Well?” Mary Frances asked. “Would you like that? We’ll have a real good time, I swear.”

I looked at her and her bouffant and nodded.

Now I wondered what I had gotten myself into. There wasn’t a speck of dust in Mary Frances’s condo, no clutter anywhere. I’d never lived in a place like that before.

In my bedroom there was a big bed covered with a fluffy white blanket. An oak dresser fit neatly by the window. I opened one of the drawers: paper-lined and lavender-scented.

“This will be your bathroom, dear,” Mary Frances said. She pointed to a door inside the bedroom.

My own bathroom? I peeked in at the sunken bathtub, marble sink and white shag rug. What if I trailed dirt on the carpet? Or left toothpaste on the counter? Would I be sent away?

That night on the big white bed, I kept my body stiff as a board. I didn’t want to mess anything up. I could hear Mary Frances fussing around in her room. Fitfully I drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, Mary Frances offered to take me on a mini shopping spree at Dillard’s.

“You don’t have to, ma’am,” I protested. I didn’t want to take advantage.

“I know that, honey,” she said. “But you could use a few new things. Come on.”

At the store, Mary Frances asked a saleslady to help us, like our own personal shopping assistant. I didn’t know you could do that!

I’d been to department stores before. But this was totally different. I actually got to pick stuff out. I actually got to try stuff on. I found a linen summer dress dotted with pink and blue daisies.

“Now find something else you like,” Mary Frances instructed. She was dauntless.

Something else? I marveled. The choices overwhelmed me–everything from hot pants to bell-bottoms. I settled on a tan pantsuit, just like Mary Frances’s. The clerk showed me to a fitting room. I tried on the summer dress first–a perfect fit–and emerged, twirling tentatively.

“Well!” Mary Frances exclaimed. “Who’s that pretty young lady?” The clerk nodded in approval.

Before we checked out, Mary Frances added a nightgown, a peach-colored two-piece bathing suit and a leather-fringed purse–not to mention my first adult undergarments. Finally, someone had noticed I was growing up! I couldn’t wait to fold my new clothes in the dresser drawers back at the condo.

Little by little, Mary Frances put me at ease. I started to trust her because she trusted me. She let me pick out whatever I wanted to eat for dinner and gave me lessons in etiquette–which fork to use when, the proper way to cut with a knife, the straight-backed posture she said was appropriate for a young lady.

She took me swimming and brought me to the library, where she volunteered. Mary Frances was like the grandmother I never had. And she had that personal style–both unique and traditional. I’d never met anyone like her.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Mary Frances said one day. We drove in her Caddy and I tried not to squirm in suspense. She pulled into the movie theater.

Spelled out in backlit letters on the marquee was Star Wars, the movie I’d been dying to see all summer! My secret crush was Luke Skywalker, the main character in the Star Wars novelization I’d read about five times by then.

Sitting in the movie theater next to Mary Frances, a bucket of popcorn between us as we traveled to a galaxy far, far away, was the closest I’d ever come to heaven on earth. It was one of those moments you wanted to live in forever.

Normally, I didn’t intrude on Mary Frances, but that night I felt so happy I poked my head into her room to say goodnight. What I saw horrified me.

“Mary Frances!” I gasped.

She sat before her bedroom mirror, applying night cream to her face–but what had happened to her beautiful blonde hair? She was completely bald!

She looked up and saw she had forgotten to pull the door shut. A moment passed that was as awkward as the other one had been perfect.

“I was sick, dear,” she said softly. “I had a brain tumor.”

I could see the long, ugly scar. Her wig rested on a foam head. I knew it was impolite to stare, but I couldn’t look away. How could something so terrible happen to a person as perfect as Mary Frances?

“It was a rough illness, Carolyn, but I survived it,” she said. “Just as you will survive what’s happened in your life. God will help you. He helped me. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

She pulled me into a hug. I let myself go, leaning on her shoulder, and let loose all my tears.

After that summer, I went back to live at my foster parents’ house. But they got separated, and I went to live in a different home. Over time I lost track of Mary Frances.

But not really. You never really lose a person you trust and love, and who loves you back. I remember so much about Mary Frances–her pantsuits, her perfectly polished furniture, her big tan Caddy.

What I remember most, though, is that beautiful bouffant resting on its wig stand while the two of us in our nightgowns hugged for what seemed like forever.


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