The Gift that Wouldn’t Die
What do hair curlers, a canary funeral, and a burn pile have in common? They’re all connected to a childhood Christmas present.
My grandmother—my amazing, funny, creative, exuberant grandmother—sent a replica of an oak sugar bucket for Christmas when I was eight years old.
It was the same year a black cocker spaniel puppy quietly sat in a basket under the tree, waiting to be discovered and fussed over. But Blackie wasn’t the first thing I spotted. The sugar bucket was—a small wood-stave bucket, slightly smaller at the top than the bottom, held in place by two circular wooden bands, one near the bottom and one near the top. It had a wooden lid and a curved handle for carrying. To make it uniquely hers, Grandmother had added decorative touches with crayon.
As was typical, her designs didn’t match. On the lid, in all the primary colors, was a depiction of a female Mexican hat dancer, while red apples and green leaves ringed the bucket’s bands. A strange combination.
That was sixty-three years ago. As unlikely a gift as a wooden bucket is for an eight-year-old, I still have it. It’s traveled with me through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in all its stages. It’s traveled from South Carolina to Kentucky to North Carolina. It’s been with me through teen angst, first love, first heartbreak, college, marriage, motherhood, and empty nest. It has seen me through girly girlhood to feminist maturity. It’ was part of my greatest life adventure—moving to a strange place and hand-building our home.
My bucket played a role in the funeral of our canary, Gene, who died unexpectedly not long after that Christmas. I’d had no experience with human death at that time, but Gene’s was the second pet death in my life; it was hard on me. I gathered my brothers and neighbors in our backyard where we dug a small hole. I placed Gene in an aluminum-foil-lined shoe box, and we lowered him into the ground with a eulogy, a hymn, and tears. But I didn’t have a monument. So, to memorialize Gene’s life and death, I wrote the details—name, dates, and how beloved he was—on the underside of my bucket’s lid.
For the most part, my bucket was where I stored my hair curlers, curlers that changed over the years as hairstyles and curling techniques evolved. First, there were small-diameter metal rods with attached clips, rubberized on the closure end. Those were followed by spongy, pink, foam curlers with matching attached plastic clips. At some point, self-gripping velcro curlers filled my bucket, as did snap-ons.
When bouffant hairstyles became all the rage, my old curlers were replaced with large, brown, mesh cylinders, supported by wire spirals and held in place with bobby pins, which were in turn succeeded by similar mesh curlers that surrounded hard, stiff bristles to lock the hair in place. Plastic “pins” were stuck through the curlers to hold them in place. Those curlers were painful to sleep in, and if you didn’t curl and uncurl just right, those curlers grabbed your hair and wouldn’t let go. Even more painful.
Probably the last curlers to make my bucket their home were the so-called magnetic curlers. They were made of hard plastic punched with holes for air circulation and came in various pastel shades and multiple sizes from half-inch to two or three inches in diameter. Those were the days of serious hair teasing, gels, and sprays. Again, bobby pins held the curlers to my head.
Then, electricity entered the world of home hair care. Heated hard plastic electric hair rollers with nubs to catch hair, steam curlers using a combination of hot water and salt to create some kind of molecular curling magic, and ultimately curling and flat irons took the place of loose curlers. A mish-mash of curlers sat unused in my bucket—just in case they needed to be called into service.
When a more natural look came into style, curlers of any sort were irrelevant to my life. My bucket no longer served a practical purpose. But it was a gift of love from a person dear to my heart, so I kept it, as I do so many things. It became part of our eclectic “decor,” if you will, wherever we lived.
A few years ago, the Gnome and I were on yet another of our simplifying kicks. (They come upon us every now and again, only to be replaced by some other collecting kick.) I decided the time had finally come to say goodbye to my sugar bucket. The rim of the lid was broken and the lid wouldn’t stay in place. The bucket’s bands kept slipping off, turning the whole thing into little more than a pile of sticks. I’d gotten tired of piecing it back together every time something bumped into it.
But it was a conflicted moment. I had to thrash out my mixed emotions with my husband, hoping he’d weigh in and give me justification for either keeping or throwing. He wisely left the decision entirely in my hands. I threw the bucket on our burn pile. Sixty years seemed plenty long enough to hold onto a childhood gift, regardless of its source.
Some time later, suffering from tosser’s remorse, I couldn’t take it anymore. Wracked with guilt, I had to check on my bucket. Even though it had sat through weeks of sun, rain, and snow, the bucket was somehow still intact, not much the worse for wear. I retrieved it.
The lid was too far gone for reincarnation so I bid a final farewell to Gene’s memorial. But the bucket is safely back inside, where it sits as a fine memorial of its own—a lidless monument to perseverance, to my ultimate inability to simplify, and to my inimitable grandmother.
Lots of late night hall parties, curlers, baby doll pjs, and all!
I love the overview of all the hair curler reincarnations as well as the description of the conflict connected with your “keeping” or “throwing” decision! Exceptionally cool vintage photos!
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Thanks, Leslie. I don’t have many college-day pix, but most of those I do have feature curlers!
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