Benson & Hedges and Beauty Salons

My mom’s cancer continued to spread. Early on in her diagnosis, I felt that nothing was shared with me. There was no explanation of what was happening other than cancer, chemo, radiation, with snippets of information that I would pick up randomly through my own observations.

As a self-professed student of Charlie’s Angels, Nancy Drew, and Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, I felt like I did okay with my sleuthing. However, it was hard for me to not understand what was happening. It made me feel juvenile and untrusted.

As we neared the summer of ’88, her illness and its side effects were obvious. She did wear a special cooling chemo cap that helped her keep her hair for a longer period of time. Oh, she loved her hair and having it done on a regular basis.

My mom, always well-coiffed.

As a young girl in the ‘70s, I would often accompany my mom to her beauty salon. It was a short walk from our house on Lenox St. and I loved everything about the place.

Her stylist looked like icon Tony Orlando to me and the atmosphere was epic. Thick rugs, velvety couches in bright, warm colors, all enveloped in the haze of cigarette smoke. My mom would give me some change for the vending machines and I would sit on a couch, in a cloud of smoke, sipping on a bottle of orange pop absolutely mesmerized by it all.

I cherished those trips with my mom. This was the era of women going to salons for a wash, set, and all of the gossip. I’ll bet she went weekly. I remember the warmth of the place with lots of laughter. There were all kinds of smells, muted of course, by the Benson & Hedges my mom smoked combined with all of the other brands swirling and condensing into certainly toxic clouds. I loved it.

My mom and I posing in our driveway.

As time passed, my mom switched salons and in the early ‘80s found herself with a stylist in downtown Oak Park. My mom had beautiful blue eyes and blonde hair. Like many women of a certain age, that blonde was enhanced. I’ll never forget coming home one day to a very distraught mom sitting at our kitchen table. Her hair was jet black.

Her fancy new stylist had made an error and it couldn’t be rectified for a few days. After a short period of mourning, she did call our backyard neighbor over for a laugh. They laughed and cried and smoked and likely had a drink or two as my mom lamented her situation.

In just a few days, she was back to her signature blonde look. In just a few months, that stylist was found dead of a drug overdose on the sidewalk in front of his salon. It seemed clear to me why he made such an error on her color.

Flash forward to the summer of 1988. I remember my mom being in the hospital beginning the week of my graduation. I don’t think she ever came home again. The hospital was a large teaching hospital in Chicago. It was about a thirty-minute drive from our house and I would go to visit her almost daily.

She was often asleep. Watching her deteriorate physically was painful to witness. As the days went on, the cancer had spread to her eyes and to her bones. She was losing her hair at this point. That was really hard for her.

Going to visit her was painful because it was now fully evident that she was incredibly ill. Her sense of humor was waning and her spirit was fading. I both treasured and dreaded these almost daily visits.


6 thoughts on “Benson & Hedges and Beauty Salons

  1. How heartbreaking those trips must have been. Yet, treasured time. My mom smoked Benson & Hedges also. Would send us to the mini mart, with a signed note, to buy them for her. We often came back empty handed and told her they were out. As an adult I realized how pissed she must have been that we did that.

    1. I’ve still got a couple of her purses and a wallet and they STILL smell like those cigarettes. I kind of love it. Thank you for sharing your comment!

  2. Oh Karen, I can almost see myself sitting beside you at the hair salon. Your vivid and detailed description sent me back in time to when my own mother would go almost weekly to have her hair done up in a beehive type of bun. I can also feel your pain as you visited your mother at the hospital and witnessed her downward spiral. This brought tears to my eyes as I sensed what you were going through again through my own personal experience of my father who I would similarly go to visit as he struggled with a devastating lung cancer at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. You are so gifted in your writing…inviting your readers to enter into your own pain (as well as your joys) and enabling them (like me) to revisit their own.

    1. Thank you, thank you for sharing this. It reinforces my thoughts that we are all connected through shared stories. Those trips were so hard and yet so important. It was rare that I missed a day as much as I dreaded it. I think of those visits every time I drive past that hospital. It takes me right back. I appreciate your support so much!

  3. Goodness. Your description of that hair salon. I have very similar memories of the one my mom went to which was operated out of her friend’s basement. I’m sure without a license, but nobody cared.
    You have a tremendous memory to be able to recall all these moments with such clarity. It’s like they just happened. And it’s like I just watched them happen instead of reading about these long ago experiences. Your gift with words pulls me in every time. Your path both hurts my heart one moment, then mends it a bit because of your well placed humor and sweetness. I’m so sorry for where this part of your story leads. Losing our parents at any time is profoundly difficult and life changing (even when you’re 48 and your mom is 95). But to have been robbed of so much time together… well, it’s just terribly wrong. And terribly unfair. I didn’t know you well back then so really had no idea you were going through such a thing. Please accept my condolences now. From the way you describe her, and from what I’m learning about you now, she was clearly a great woman.

    I don’t know how far you’ll be taking this blog, but please keep writing. Even if it becomes something else. Your voice should be heard. It’s a universal one and so very accessible and open-hearted for so many. The world needs more of that.

    1. I sincerely can’t thank you enough for sharing this heartfelt comment, and really, for taking the time to share it. Your words came at the exact time I needed to hear them. I love how that works. I appreciate you and am so glad to be getting to know you now.

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