As I was cleaning out a drawer a couple of days ago, I came across a green plastic key chain tag that read Bonat Beauty Shop, 216 11th Street, Lynchburg Virginia. Bonat Beauty Shop located on a steep, side street in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, housed my Aunt Eleanor’s working career for over forty years.
If I concentrate I can see its front door, the three steps down to a dark hallway with three or four single hanging light bulbs. I have no idea the other business on that hallway as my memory fails me, but I know that the door to the small salon was the first on the right and opened immediately into the front room which faced the sidewalk. Sitting there and gazing out the high windows that ran along the street, I could see the walking feet of Lynchburgites as they made their way to other downtown businesses.
In that front room were four or five heavy duty stainless steel helmets of hair dryers sets complete with black leatherette style seats and knob controls; the room behind connected by a single door hosted the working area --- two or three “hair fixin” stations, three sinks, and wooden cabinets from floor to ceiling full of hair products, rollers, and the paraphernalia that accompanied all that was “beauty.” This two room salon is where my Aunt Eleanor washed, set, dyed, and gave permanent waves to hair.
When I spent a month in the summer visiting my aunts in Lynchburg, I was never unsupervised. If there was a time when Aunt Lois was not there to “watch me” and Aunt Ava was on the day shift at Lynchburg General Hospital, where she worked as a pediatric nurse, then I would be packed off to Aunt Eleanor’s “beauty shop” to spend the day flipping through magazines and begging for a dime for a Coca Cola from the vending machine that sat in the hallway outside the shop, its refrigerator hum a constant.
The small salon where Aunt Eleanor worked was a two-woman shop. Aunt Eleanor’s friend Ruth actually owned the business, and she and Aunt Eleanor shared the space apparently pretty harmoniously as Aunt Eleanor declared that she didn't have "a head for business."
I have no idea what kind of money she actually made, but when it was time to move her to a nursing home when she had dementia, her savings account was substantial and easily covered her expenses for the rest of her life.
When I think of how my aunts saved their money, it makes me proud.
All of my aunts were frugal. They grew up during the Depression, lived on a farm, and never wasted a thing -- they washed tin-foil, threw coffee grinds and vegetable peelings for fertilizer in their garden, neatly folded paper bags from the grocery store to reuse, washed out all glass jars, and saved everything in case “they needed it.” They grew up without -- knew what it was like to “want” -- and appreciated all that had blessed them.
Downtown Lynchburg borders the James River and sits in the Eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My aunts’ residence was on the western side of the city, so in order to go downtown, we headed east on one of the main thoroughfares like Memorial Avenue and then chose which street to take down one of the huge hills to the city area. My favorite was 12th Street which had no stop signs, that annoying driving necessity left up to the cross streets named after presidents -- Polk, Harrison, Jackson, Madison, and Monroe to name a few.
Made up of four hills, Garland, Federal, Court House, and Diamond, Lynchburg sported quite a thrill for a kid like me to go to the top of one and look down that one-way street and know that the descent was roller-coaster like…as it was about fifteen city blocks to the bottom before we would turn left on Church or Main to pick up Aunt Eleanor from work at the beauty parlor.
I joyously rode with Aunt Ava, the only driver of the three sisters who lived in that house, who was a little bit of a “lead foot” and would graciously indulge her niece on that stomach dropping descent almost to the James River.
Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Really, it was fun.
I remember many times telling her to “go faster! Go faster!” as we plummeted down one of those four hills to the city. I am grinning as I think about it now as I type this. Aunt Eleanor would patiently wait at the corner or outside the shop for our arrival. Aunt Ava and I would arrive, hair blown about our heads, and Aunt Eleanor would get in the back seat for the steady climb back up one of the four hills and home. Aunt Eleanor knew what we had just done as our wild eyes and big grins [much less our tousled hair] always gave us away.
I loved being baby-sat at the shop as I could spend hours in one of the unused dryer chairs looking at the latest issue of Photoplay or True Romance. I found a world of which I wasn’t accustomed -- movie stars, gossip, and suggestions of sexual misconduct. It was in those chairs that I fell in love with the Kennedys, as the other magazines subscribed to at my aunt’s shop featured Jackie Kennedy often on their covers. I would sip Coke, nibble on Nabs, and fritter away time.
The shop reeked of ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, and hair spray, and the loyal customers chatted with Ruth and Aunt Eleanor like friends and smiled at me and asked me questions about Georgia. There I would sit for hours at a time only getting up to beg for that dime, assist them if they let me, or daydream about being agile enough to roll hair on those curlers or stick bobby pins in the right place or even perhaps be smart enough to know how much developer was needed to get that “color” that the women seem to want. After all, “only their hairdresser knew for sure.”
I have fond memories of that shop, the ride to it, and the comfort I felt hanging out with my aunt there and being coddled by the women who frequented the business.
At Christmas, Aunt Eleanor used to get not only the most presents, but the prettiest wrapped presents were hers as her customers gave her scarves, handkerchiefs, chocolates, or pretty nightgowns bought from one of Lynchburg’s finest department stores, Miller and Rhoads. We used to count the number of presents she received and sometimes it was close to fifty.
Like all jobs, hers had its drawbacks; I remember that Aunt Eleanor’s hands chafed and her nails were sometimes black with hair color. On my summer visits there, I slept on a cot in her upstairs bedroom, and I have a single memory etched in my mind of her ritual at bedtime:
With all the lights off in the room [since I had gone to bed long before her, but her soft footsteps sometimes awoke me] except for a clip on light on her mirror that shone on a small space on her dresser top, she sat in a chair at her dresser and religiously and painstakingly soaked her darkened nails in some concoction to help remove the stains from the dye and then lathered her hands with lotion before encasing them in cotton gloves. Then with a satin cap tucked on her head and held carefully in place with bobby pins, she’d turn off the light and make her way to her bed for sleep.
I would then turn over on that cot and sleep myself.