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A Permanent Memory

In the summer of 1988, I got a whole new look. I was 7 years old, and I’d just finished the first grade—my first year of school in Perryton, a little scattering of 7,000 people in an expanse of farms and feedlots in the Texas Panhandle. The year before, I’d been a student in a Montessori kindergarten in Manhattan where I’d made macaroni necklaces with little boys in yarmulkes and volunteered to sing in an extracurricular school production of Oliver.

Though I knew, vaguely, that things were different in Perryton, I’d been content to spend most of my first grade recesses “dreaming” by myself in a corner of the playground (“dreaming” meant pacing around while making up stories out loud, a habit that had always alarmed my dad and, I’m sure, my teachers). I learned later that my mom often drove to the school during my recess and cried while watching me from her car, aware in a way I wasn’t that playing by oneself during recess is kind of sad.

1988 was also the summer my little sister was born, and May and June were hot, dry, and still while my mom continued to swell to an extent I wouldn’t have thought possible. I spent a fair amount of time filling out a “big sister” baby book my mom had given me on the advice of a parenting book about making your oldest child feel included in the birth of a new baby. I knew this because she told me, “I’m reading this parenting book that said you’d feel more involved if you had your own little book to fill out.” Other things this book advised included letting me hold the baby first after it was born (which I did) and offering to let me taste a little breastmilk out of a cup if I was curious about the baby nursing (which I also did, reluctantly, because I felt like it was important to my mom that I go along with this stuff). Looking back, I think that mindset, if not the general exhaustion, was also responsible for my mom allowing me to get bangs and a perm later that summer.

My sister was born at home. My dad is a doctor, and my mom was horrified at the thought of all the nurses in the hospital being in the middle of her labor, relaying reports back to the rest of the staff (and thus to the rest of the town) about Dr. Siewert’s new baby. His nurse came to wake me up at around 5am on the morning of June 26. “Cammy, wake up. Your momma’s about to have a baby.” I stood up out of bed calmly, feeling as if I’d known in my sleep that she was coming, put on my turquoise cotton zip-up robe and sheepskin booties, and made my way across the house to my parents’ bedroom, where I watched my little sister be born and stood patiently, waiting for the nurse to clean her up and hand her to me. I don’t remember watching the birth at all, which probably says something about what I saw. I do remember the baby feeling heavier than I’d expected, which seemed right. This was important.

Later that morning, I laid on my bed with my new sister asleep beside me and whispered my favorite names to her, seeing if she’d wake up when I said the right one. We all ended up calling her different names for three full days until we finally conceded the decision to my mom. My favorite was Berry.

It wasn’t until almost two months later, around my birthday in August, that I got obsessed with the idea of having a big, voluminous perm and the kind of bangs the popular girls had had in first grade. You know the ones. I like to think of this as my first “life crisis”. I’d spent my first grade year blissfully occupied in my own imagination, unconcerned with whether my classmates liked me or not. Now, I knew the score. I’d grown up over the summer. I had responsibilities. I was a big sister, and I knew that I’d soon be back in class with those same people who’d known me the year before. I needed to be different. I needed to look the part.

I left the salon that fateful day with my fine, white-blonde hair shocked into voluminous, crimpy waves and gathered back into a long banana clip, with a stiff puff of bangs in front. I insisted on wearing my hair like this for the rest of the summer. On school registration day, my mom and I ran into my first grade teacher, Mrs. Burke. It was the first time I can remember feeling self-conscious around an adult. I’d cried when I’d left Mrs. Burke’s class in May, wailing that I might never SEE her again, and now I cared very much that she notice how much I’d grown up. Of course, my mom had just had a baby who was now just over a month old, and Mrs. Burke naturally wanted to hear all about her. Before she left, she patted me on the back, smiled, and told me to have a wonderful first day of second grade. I stood there in my favorite outfit—a turquoise short set with a black geometric pattern—and my big, poofy perm, and felt ridiculous. I actually remember feeling ridiculous.

I had the bangs until my freshman year of college—another story for another day—but that year, my perm washed out before the air even turned crisp.