My mother, God rest her soul, spent her teens in the midst of the Great Depression, and, like many of her generation, became a fist-clencher when it came to releasing money for any reason. Although she never called us poor, we were always made aware that things were tight, and every request was automatically negated with, “We can’t afford it.”
That is the way I was brought up, and my outlook now, thanks to her, is pretty much identical to hers. “We can’t afford it,” is one of the staples in my cabinet full of stock answers. As a consumer, I buy used, read how-to’s and fix things myself, and seldom splurge on anything. This year’s vacation is a 2-night stay in a beach motel 4 miles from home.
So cost-cutting measures come naturally to me. I have learned, though, that in some places, it just doesn’t pay to economize. Way too many of Mom’s attempts to save money resulted in trauma, injury, or embarrassment. Most backfired and ended up costing her more money than if she’d bitten the bullet and paid someone to do it right the first time.
The Allergy Shots
Mom discovered she could save some pennies by giving me my weekly allergy shot at home. As a former LPN, she was confident she could painlessly stick a needle in my sausage-sized arm each week just as well as my doctor’s RN. The allergist was on the other side of town, so by not having to schlep me out there each week, she would gain enough time for at least one or two more highballs on Shot Night.
Arrangements were made for procuring the serum, and I guess back then, anyone could purchase a re-useable hypodermic syringe, which was made out of thick Pyrex glass and had a needle that was the size of (I could be exaggerating here) a crayon. This little uncapped torture device was kept in a box in the same drawer with the cigarettes and Top Value stamps. For my skinny little arms, this needle posed a big threat.
Every Tuesday night became Shot Night. After dinner Mom would “sterilize” the needle and syringe by boiling them in water, using a pan that just minutes before had been used to boil rice or heat up leftover gravy. The device would percolate for fifteen minutes or until she deemed it sterilized, whichever came first.
Then she would pour the water out over the colander, which earlier in the week had been used for straining spaghetti, and the glass syringe and the ballpoint pen needle, remained there until they cooled. When it was time, Mom would take her unwashed hands, pick up the needle and the syringe and assemble them—they somehow snapped together—and then call me in for the injection. But first, she summoned her courage by lighting up a Chesterfield King cigarette, which dangled from her lips throughout the procedure.
For the injection, she preferred to be at eye level with my skinny little arm, so I stood on a kitchen chair while she smeared massive amounts of rubbing alcohol from my elbow to shoulder. She would then make it all evaporate by blowing smoky air on it.
She had left the nursing business at least 15 years before she started this inject-it-yourself-and-save enterprise in our house. Maybe the needle wasn’t rusty, but she was. She should have spent several hours practicing on oranges and grapefruit. But by then, after the rice and gravy, the needle had probably seen enough edible products. She didn’t pop the needle in quickly. She somehow thought that if she pushed slower, the pain I’d feel would lessen, when, in fact, it was the polar opposite of that.
I always worried the needle would hit my bone and bend, and then I’d be left with a bent needle in my arm the rest of my life. More often than not, she’d hit an artery and blood would trickle down my arm until she sealed it with a Band-aid.
Tuesdays became my own personal hell night.
This sadistic behavior went on with the same needle for weeks and weeks, and her technique did not improve. She would alternate arms, try different locations, offer to give it to me in my bottom, but the outcome was always the same: blood, trauma, pain, followed by recovery until the following Tuesday.
After a while I just sucked it up and got used to it. But then one night something went terribly wrong, and the needle broke off in my arm. She pulled back the syringe, but no needle was attached. This caused her to scream, which caused her cigarette to drop on my arm, which caused me to scream. The needle was more inside me than outside me, and could not be picked out with fingers, even though, God knows, she tried.
When the screaming stopped and my crying began, Mom returned from the bathroom with the tweezers. And not just the everyday, sandspur-plucking tweezers. These were the good tweezers. The sharper, more accurate, eyebrow-plucking tweezers. She picked and picked at the piece of metal that barely rose above my skin. The blood made it slippery, so every time the tweezers slipped off there was this toenail-clipping sound. A few years later, this sound would be re-introduced to me at the orthodontist’s office when he tightened and then clipped off the wire on my braces. To this day, I can’t cut my toenails or a piece of wire without first taking prescribed narcotics.
Finally she got enough grip on it with the tweezers to bring it out more, and she plucked the rest out with her fingers. My arm turned purple, then green, and then yellow until the next Shot Night.
The following Tuesday after we did the dishes, Mom once again took the Revere Ware pot from the dish drain, filled it with tap water, and set the same syringe and new needle to boil. My sister and cousin Bruce, who was living with us at the time, went outside to shoot hoops. I hid behind the loveseat in the living room. A while later, my mother called me, but I didn’t answer. She called to my sister, who reported that I was not with them. Mom then sent Kathryn and Bruce in separate directions searching for me, and I could hear her on the phone, frantically calling neighbors and parents of my friends to see if they had seen me. Of course this, I thought, was unbearably funny, and I pinched my nose to keep from laughing.
About 45 minutes later, my sister and cousin came back without a patient. In the living room, just inches away from me, Mom went down the list of every place I could have gone and asked if they had checked there. Yes, they checked the box hockey at the playground, the popsicle section at 7-11, and the drainage ditch where I frequently collected tadpoles. Finally, when I heard worry in her voice. I popped up from behind the couch and screamed, “BOO!”
My mother immediately burst into tears, and in a rare moment of vulnerability, told me, “You scared me. I thought you were dead!” She ran into her bedroom, weeping. Bruce and Kathryn came after me, and I ran from them until I was caught, slapped, and called a string of bad names.
I didn’t get the shot that night, and the following week she started taking me back to the doctor, where I was injected quickly, cleanly, and painlessly with a small, disposable syringe. Success!
The Home Haircut
I always felt a little guilty that I liked my Aunt Kay more than I liked my mother. Aunt Kay grew up on a farm with my father, and she could do everything from cut out and sew a lined tuxedo to install plumbing or re-roof a house. She had, for many years, been a professional hair stylist. Consequently, whenever I left
Not to be outdone, my mother noticed one fall that she could redeem a couple of books of Top Value stamps and receive a home haircutting kit that came with all sizes of comb-like attachments, “real barber” scissors, as it said on the box, and a pamphlet of instructions that could—and would—be completely ignored.
So when the big day arrived and the clippers were delivered, my dreams for a Winnebago, the most expensive item on the back cover of the Top Value Stamp catalog, suffered a severe setback. Remembering the Shot Nights, my mother wisely volunteered my stepfather—and not me—to be her first clipper victim. The home clipping kit even came with a thin vinyl apron to drape the victim, which, I suppose, would prevent any spilled blood from staining his clothes.
“Isn’t this nice?” Mom said, complimenting the apron, “it just comes with everything!”
My stepfather, a toothless, semi-literate elementary school dropout, mumbled something incomprehensible.
“You know,” Mom continued her reassuring pre-styling speech, “For the last week or so, I’ve been studying men’s haircuts, and I think I know just how it’s done.”
She put the biggest attachment on the clippers, powered them on, and quietly buzzed her way around his head.
Unlike my head of hair, which was then thick and coarse and long, the way I wanted it to be, Ray had very thin, very fine hair. You could have shaved him bald and no one would have noticed.
Mom turned off the clippers, and I noticed there was not one hair fragment on the apron or on the floor.
“I don’t think it’s working,” I said.
“Of course it’s working,” Mom retorted. “Can’t you hear it running? I just need a smaller attachment.” She removed the big attachment and put on one that was tapered from the left to the right. This time you could hear cutting taking place.
“There, you see? I’m not saying it’s going to look perfect, but with a little practice, you won’t know my haircut from a barber’s haircut.”
“Aunt Kay doesn’t use clippers on me. She just uses scissors,” I said, in a feeble attempt to talk her out of including me on her list of injured parties.
“Well, your haircut would take less time if she did,” Mom said.
Yeah, at fourteen, that’s what I wanted in a haircut: speed over style.
So this “quickie” haircut went on and on. Mom had to try each attachment to see what they did.
“Oh, I see now,” Mom said after it was too late. “This one is used to circle around the left ear, and this one is used to circle around the right ear. I’ll remember that for next time.”
After all the attachments had been tested, Mom tried out the clippers without any attachment just to even things out. In the end, Ray was bald from the cowlick down, and just a sprout of hair stood up at the tip-top of his head. This would later be referred to as the Mr. Weatherbee haircut.
My stepfather, on a cue from my mother said, “I like this haircut. It feels good.” Or maybe it just sounded like that; without the teeth, it was hard to tell. Even when he did bother to insert his dentures, between his drawl and his drinking, he was mostly incomprehensible, so frequently Mom had to translate. This time, the disaster was much more visible than any cost-cutting measures, to date had been, including the bruised and bloody injection arm. I could tell by the look on my mother’s face and her forgetting to translate Ray’s words that she realized it hadn’t been as easy as it had looked on the box. Nevertheless, she remained undeterred and later sat down at the kitchen table and read the pamphlet, skipping the haircutting instructions and moving directly to the clipper maintenance section.
The pamphlet instructed the user to frequently brush out hair that clogged in it and to oil the blades when necessary. For some reason, she thought that meant now, and she also surmised the clippers had to be taken apart to perform that. She unscrewed the blade, and instead of brushing the hair out first, she squirted oil from the little oil bottle (“It just comes with everything!”) on whatever looked oilable, and then she tried to screw the blade back on. The oil coagulated with the hair fragments to form what could only be called “clipper cheese,” which clung to the side of the clippers and dropped onto the kitchen table.
She plugged the clippers back into the outlet and clicked it on; and it made this chainsaw-like noise that sent both our cats—napping on the corner platform of our kitchen booth—fleeing for their remaining, terrified lives.
She clicked off the clippers. “I must not have put them back together right,” Mom said, and she unscrewed everything again and this time screwed it back together tighter, and tried again. More chainsaw noise.
“OH WELL, IT DOESN’T MATTER,” Mom screamed over the noise before unplugging them. “They still work even if they do sound like that.”
I don’t remember exactly what my first haircut looked like. I must have blocked it out. I do, however, remember asking people to talk louder afterwards. Fortunately, it was 1970, and everyone’s hair looked like hell, anyway. It was the style then.
Aunt Kay cut her own hair. She had a special mirror that had a hook on it that went around her neck. With her great dexterity, two mirrors, and decades of practice, she had mastered it and hadn’t been to the beauty parlor in years. The following summer, Kay bought me an identical mirror, and she taught me how to cut my own hair, thus creating another possible answer to the question, “Why are you gay?”
And Mom continued, every other week, to cut my stepfather’s hair. Due to the loud blast of the clippers, and for the sake of the cats, she relocated her money-saving barber shop to the back patio. During every haircut, neighbors came running out, thinking someone was cutting down a tree.
I’m not saying my self-haircuts were any better looking than the loud haircuts my mother continued to give my stepfather. But at least I still had my hearing.
And now Mom is gone—as is most of my hair—but I continue to buzz-cut what’s left my own hair, for free, with semi-silent clippers.
Recently I had a cardiac procedure done. One of the aftercare procedures required me to inject meds into my belly. A home health care agency delivered six disposable hypodermic needles, an instruction pamphlet, and even a little mail-away biohazard kit to dispose of the six needles.
It just came with everything! Except the rice pot and colander.