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Life Lessons I Learned In a Beauty Salon

05/13/2015 09:47 am ET | Updated May 13, 2016

There was no better place in my hometown to get primped and pampered than Lucille's House of Beauty. That's where my mother worked and where I spent a majority of my time when I was growing up.

The beauty shop was always buzzing with cackling women, many of whom shared their most intimate secrets with my mother as she cut and styled their hair. Mom was a master at permanent waves and finger waves, but she was superior at keeping secrets (especially her own).

The shop's proprietor was Lucille Hunt -- a heavyset woman with big breasts and fire-engine-red fingernails. Her hair was dyed light blonde and teased so high it looked like cotton candy. Lucille purchased a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house on top of a hill on South Tenth Street, and eventually she converted it into one of the most popular salons in the small town of Haines City, Florida.

The beauty shop had four orange Formica shampoo stations -- complete with mirrors, porcelain sinks, and black vinyl chairs that swiveled back and forth, and also went up and down. As a child, I loved to climb in mom's chair when she wasn't looking and spin as fast as I could until I got dizzy.

Posters of stylish women sporting the latest 70s hairdos hung on the yellow stucco walls. Cat Stevens, Roberta Flack, and the Moody Blues played on the transistor radio in the background. The competing scent of permanent wave lotion and Grand Finale hairspray wafted throughout the salon.

The sunroom, which was also known as the dryer room, was located on the east end of the beauty salon. This room housed six orange hair dryer chairs. After mom washed and rolled her customers' hair, she'd take them to this room where they'd sit under the dryer for about 45 minutes and read the latest issue of Ladies Home Journal or take a nap. Their heads bobbed up and down as they slept and their cheeks turned beet red from the warm air blowing out of the clear acrylic dryer hoods.

I frequently watched mom gently take her elderly customers by the arm and escort them all the way from the dryer room to her styling chair on the other side of the salon. Some of her customers were so frail they could barely walk without assistance. They held on to my mother's arm and slowly shuffled across the room. I rarely saw any of the other beauty operators go to such great lengths to assist their customers the way my mother did. Her customers always appreciated her kind attentiveness.

When I turned eight, I was old enough to help mom whenever she got busy. I'd sweep up the hair around her chair or greet her customers when they walked in the door. "Go say hello to Mrs. So-and-So," she'd say. Or, "Jackie, please take the rollers out of my customer's hair."

I eagerly hopped up from my chair and did as I was told. I didn't mind touching the customers' heads. First, I removed the pink plastic picks from the rollers, then I carefully unrolled the brush rollers and placed them in the wicker basket that sat on the customer's lap. Mom occasionally glanced over from her styling chair across the room to make sure I kept each curl in tact. She smiled with approval.

As I removed the prickly rollers, the customers would often ask, "Do you want to be a beautician when you grow up, Jackie?" Before I could answer, mom usually chimed in and said, "No, I want Jackie to go to college and get a degree." My mother was adamant that I get a good education so that I wouldn't have to stand on my feet all day long like she did.

Sometimes I'd tell the customer what I really wanted to do with my life. "I want to be a model when I grow up," I said softly.

In my mind, I already had my whole career mapped out. I wanted to travel the world, wear sequined dresses, appear in magazines and perform on television. I wanted to be just like Miss America 1973, Terry Anne Meeuwsen, and stand next to Bert Parks, sing "He Touched Me," watch the audience cry tears of joy and give me a standing ovation. I didn't want to be a beautician. Instead, I wanted to be famous.

I learned how to carry on a conversation with adults while working at Lucille's House of Beauty. Mom's clientele was mostly comprised of little, blue-haired ladies who paid $5.00 a week for a shampoo and set, not to mention an earful of local gossip. Most of the time, her customers tipped an additional $1 or $2, and then they'd tell her to "just keep the change." On a good day, mom would usually bring home $15-$20 in tips, which allowed us to get a Happy Meal at McDonalds or, sometimes, a nice dinner at Morrison's cafeteria.

My mother's job was far from glamorous. Most days, she was too busy for a proper lunch, so she'd eat Lance Peanut Butter Crackers whenever she took a break. Her fingernails were stained with hair color and she had corns and callouses on her feet from standing for hours. Her lower back was always sore from leaning over the shampoo bowl and washing other people's dirty scalps all day long. At night, mom would lie on the floor while my brother and I took turns walking on her spine. She took Tylenol and Doan's pills regularly.

Despite all her aches and pains, mom never called in sick, nor did she complain. She adored her customers and they adored her. They were extremely loyal and would have followed her anywhere. Although she didn't have a college degree, she had excellent people skills. She instinctively knew what her customers wanted; they wanted to look beautiful.

Although she was not rich, she did manage to find a career that she truly enjoyed. She cared about her customers and took great pride in making them look their very best.

In retrospect, I'm not sure if any of my mother's customers knew how broken she was or how difficult it was for her to put a smile on her face each day, especially since she struggled with alcoholism. But because mom knew how to pull herself together, no one ever suspected what was hidden beneath her artfully applied make-up and stylish polyester pantsuit.

Behind it all was a kind, caring, vulnerable woman who managed to make ends meet, to keep her wits about her, and make sure that her children felt cherished and safe.

For more stories by Jacqueline Whitmore, visit her blog (JacquelineWhitmore.com) or "like" her Facebook page.