'Crowning Glory': A Story Of Healing Beauty

The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder i i
The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

Hear The Full Interview With Rebecca Wells

Calla Lily Ponder is a girl from Louisiana who learns from her mother the art of healing through hair. But it's not the first story from author Rebecca Wells to approach the world through the eyes of a beautician.

The last time Wells spoke to Weekend Edition's Liane Hansen, the year was 1987. Wells appeared on Fresh Air — then guest-hosted by Hansen — to discuss her one-woman show, Splitting Hairs. In the performance, Wells played a small-town Louisiana girl named Loretta Sue Endless who moves to New Orleans to pursue a dream of going to beauty school.

"She loves doing hair," Wells said of Loretta Sue in 1987. "She's devoted to it, she's committed to it, and she sees the entire world through the lens of her commitment to hair."

That was then. Twenty-two years later, Wells returns to the story of a small-town girl with dreams of big-city beauty school. "I always wanted to know how Loretta Sue began," Wells says. "I didn't really know how she became who she was ... and I always wanted to write a book to find that out."

The answers lie in Wells' new book, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder. Loretta Sue is now the title character, Calla Lily Ponder — a transformation that occurred over many years, as Loretta Sue "cooked on the back burner, like a slow-cooking gumbo."

Like Loretta Sue, Calla Lily grows up in a small Louisiana town. That town is La Luna, where Calla Lily's mother runs a beauty salon and, with the help of Calla Lily's father, a dance studio. And like Loretta Sue, she moves to New Orleans to pursue a dream of becoming a hairdresser.

But the origins of that move are as deep as a Louisiana bayou. "It all started with her mother," Wells says. "[It's] a subject I've been very interested in, because I think the mother-daughter relationship is probably one of most intimate and important that we'll ever have in our lives — and I include our spouses."

Fans of Wells will remember her tack for female relationships in her last novel, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Concerning the work of a beautician — a female profession in the 1970s, when the book is set — Wells says there's more than meets the eye. "It seems like such a mundane, overlooked profession," she told Hansen back in 1987. "And yet when you really look at the word 'beautician,' it's all about a practitioner of beauty. Someone who looks at beauty."

Wells remained fascinated with her character's "utter commitment and devotion to something so seemingly small as the world of hair." And despite her command of that world, Wells has never been a licensed beautician or cosmetologist. She draws inspiration from her home state.

"Everything I write comes from the fact that I'm a Louisiana girl," she says. "The sights, the sounds, the smells, the music, the food — that flat land of central Louisiana where I grew up and the rivers that run through there absolutely influence me."

On the final question of whether she's learned everything there is to know about beautician Loretta Sue Endless — now Calla Lily Ponder — Rebecca Wells isn't showing any cards.

"The book is not really tied up with a happy, wrapped-up-bow ending. There are many big decisions [Calla Lily] hasn't made yet." The novel sees Calla Lily fall in love time and again — first with a high-school sweetheart who leaves for Stanford, then with a gay hairdresser named Ricky and then with Ricky's brother, who ferries supplies to oil rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico.

But Wells says that when the book ends, Calla Lily "hasn't exactly finished things with her men." That might mean Wells isn't finished with Calla Lily.

So, where does Wells go next? "Who knows," she says. But then adds, "I mean, I know. I'm working on two books now. But in terms of saying it — I ain't tellin'."

Excerpt: 'The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder'

My name is Calla Lily Ponder. I was born in 1953 in La Luna, Louisiana, on the banks of the La Luna River. That is where my mother cut and curled hair, and my father and mother together taught tango, waltz, and the Cajun two-step. They said they named me for their favorite flower because they wanted me to spiral open into radiant beauty, inside and out. Even when I was born, a red, tiny, hollering thing, they claimed they could see the beautiful, creamy-colored, velvety bloom of a calla lily.

My eyes are blue like my mother's — I call her M'Dear — and my complexion is olive like Papa's. I guess the only thing that resembles the flower I'm named for is my long, strong legs. They've served me well so far, and I'm grateful for that. I was taught not to care much what other people thought, unless someone said you were mean to them, and it was true. Then you better pay attention. My big brothers and I learned this at an early age: That it is kindness that makes you rich.

I also learned very early that I loved my mother's hair. Family stories have it that when I was young, nothing soothed me more than being held in M'Dear's arms, playing with her long, shiny chestnut-colored hair. It fell down to her waist, but photos of her at that time show how she held it back in combs so only part of it fell forward. I'd reach up, let it fall over me, then part it, pat it, and curl my fingers in it. I'd play with it the way other children did with new toys, only my mother's hair was new to me over and over again. After a spell of playing with it, I would settle in and just gaze up at her. She would look back, and when she did, she let me see myself reflected in her eyes. It was as if she held this little mirror inside her, just for me, to see me, to know who I was.

M'Dear was the owner and sole practitioner at the Crowning Glory Beauty Porch. The name of her business came from two sources. First, the Bible. Second, the fact that we had a porch that ran all the way around our house.

M'Dear taught me about the Bible early on. "'A woman's hair is her crowning glory,' the Bible says. It's a beautiful quote. Along with the Beatitudes and the Commandments, it's one of the teachings I hope you and your brothers will learn. And don't just learn them, let them into your heart."

Papa said, "Just be kind. Period."

When M'Dear and Papa first moved into our house, M'Dear had the big side porch enclosed and turned into a beauty parlor. It was there that she washed, dried, curled, dyed, bleached, permed, and gave manicures — but not pedicures, and I don't blame her. Down off the porch was the Beauty Patio, with a fountain that had a lady with mermaids swimming under her like they were holding her up. The Crowning Glory Beauty Porch was where most all the La Luna ladies came to catch up on the latest news. Even ladies without appointments stopped by in the afternoons for coffee, bringing some sweet baked goods to share with everybody. As Papa put it, "Lenora has made her beauty porch the Crowning Glory Gathering Place!" I always got goosebumps and felt slightly disoriented when I heard my mother called by her name. It reminded me of her life that was separate from being my mother. As close as M'Dear and I were, it was good to be reminded. It kept things in balance. In their classes, I watched her at Will and Lenora's Swing 'N Sway, Papa and M'Dear's dance studio. I'd see her cha-cha, swirl and dip, waltz, fox trot, and samba with other men on a regular basis. She had two chiffon skirts, and when she dressed up in one of them, she looked so different from the M'Dear I knew in her cotton dresses, or shorts and a starched white blouse. On the nights when she was demonstrating dances and teaching certain moves, I was both proud and a little jealous. When I told her that, she hugged me, and said, "Oh, little Calla, there's enough of me to go around. I have enough love for you, and other people too."

On the days that M'Dear washed her hair, she called them "Days of Beauty." She spent the whole day pampering herself, and she taught me how to pamper myself as well.

"If cleanliness is next to Godliness," M'Dear said, "then pampering is next to Goddessness." My mother would say those kinds of things and then give a little laugh and a wink like we had a secret club.

On Days of Beauty, we had fans made of vetiver root so that when we fanned ourselves we smelled the wonderful, spicy, of-the-earth smell that is the vetiver plant, grown on the Clareux plantation not far from La Luna. M'Dear made it a game for us to create facials from ingredients out of the kitchen and the garden. This was all before I started school, and was graced to spend days on end with my mother, so rich and private that even now I can close my eyes and relive them. I do not mean to say that those days were perfect. Even at that age, I heard the edge in M'Dear's voice when she and Papa sat at the kitchen table, at night, talking about money. Sometimes we had very little, and that was scary, although I didn't know then what it all meant. It was just as well, since it all worked out. In the world of La Luna, my parents were too creative to go broke.

During the wet, cold months that make up a Louisiana winter, M'Dear's hair was so long and thick that drying it could take all day. On those days we'd stay inside, cleaning, ironing, and cooking up huge pots of gumbo. I'd climb up onto the big soft chair next to the fireplace in the kitchen, and shine shoes or sew on buttons or do the other tasks she was teaching me. I'd sit there and watch her work, watch her go in and out of the washroom like a breeze was blowing her in.

On hot Days of Beauty, we'd put on our swimsuits and stand outside on the wooden platform of the outdoor shower. It was my happy job to scrub clean buckets and other containers and set them outside to gather rainwater to wash our hair. M'Dear would undo my braid, pour the rainwater on my head, put on a little Breck shampoo, and wash my hair. The sun shone down, my mother's hands touched my head, and her fingers lathered love into me. Never has my hair been so soft. Sometimes I still wash my hair in rainwater, to remember.

After our hair was clean, M'Dear would leave hers down, and, still in our swimsuits, we'd hang clean clothes outside to dry on the line, with me handing her clothespins out of a small apron she had sewn for me out of flower sacks. I have a photo of us by the clothesline, doing this very thing. We were working and smiling, squinting slightly in the sunlight. I was just about to enter first grade, just about to leave behind those mother-daughter days of intimacy, of little maternal baptisms. M'Dear prepared me for that leaving so that it was smooth and felt natural. Not all leavings are that easily prepared for.

After finishing chores and when our hair was dry, M'Dear and I would go down to our pier, just before sunset. These memories are so vivid to me that I don't need a photograph to see them. I carry them inside me.

In one memory, it is growing toward twilight. We are sitting on the pier with the La Luna River flowing by.

"M'Dear," I ask, "can I brush your hair with the hundred magical strokes?"

"Of course," she says.

And as the sun sparkled off the cocoa-red water and the wind stirred in the tall pines, I stood behind my mother, my legs on either side of her, and brushed her hair. I lifted her long chestnut hair up off her neck, twirled it up on top of her head, then let it fall, watching its weight settle back down around her shoulders. Then I'd lean my face into her hair and smell it. I can close my eyes and smell it now: sun and vanilla.

What I first learned about love, I learned on that dock with M'Dear. The La Luna River flowing by with its river sounds, the riverbanks with their lovely sweet citrus scent of jasmine, the scent of M'Dear's hair, the oils of her scalp, the fullness of her thick, long curls against my hands, our breathing together, the closeness, her love for meall of this knit my soul together. When the fading sunlight hit the river, it bounced up to form iridescence, like a halo, around M'Dear's head.

She is the most beautiful person in the universe.

On clear nights when the moon was out, we'd return to our pier. On the way, she'd point out fireflies. I'd hear a screech; M'Dear would stroke my hair, and say, "Calla, that's just a barn owl, and nothing to be afraid of. Oh, she's a beauty of an owl, with a white, heart-shaped face."

I remember the first time she introduced me to the one who would keep me company forever. She must have told me even earlier, because my big brother Will later told me that as a toddler I used to waddle around in diapers, saying "Moolay, Moolay." And Mama told me, "Your Papa and I held you up in the moonlight when you were barely six months old. Everyone else in La Luna takes their one-year-olds to dip their toes in the river. But we held you up to the moon as well."

That night M'Dear said, "Calla, now look at the moon!" Her voice was filled with love for me and delight in what she was witnessing. "You see how beautiful She is?" M'Dear always called the moon "She." "See how bright She shines! See Her light on the water? Here, let me hold you while we look. Tell me, Calla, what do you see up there?"

"I see a lady."

"I do too, little darling." Then M'Dear wrapped her arms around me and whispered in my ear, "She's the Moon Lady."

We were quiet as we watched the Moon Lady's reflection dance on the river.

"Remember this," M'Dear said. "When the sky and everything around you looks dark, and you feel lost and alone, the Moon Lady is still there, watching over you, whispering: 'What do you need from me now, little darling, what do you need from me now?' "

Then M'Dear lightly touched the crown of my head. "The moon is our mother, sweet daughter of mine. Call on her when you need her. Call on her."

All my life I've remembered those words. Or tried to.

I miss seeing myself reflected in M'Dear's eyes. I thought I'd lost the reflection when she died. But then I learned that it is not permanently lost. That if you wait, like she told me, then you can lift the gauze, lift the veil, and see her eyes again.

I see her now as she held me above the La Luna River, her long hair lit by a waxing moon. I see my mother as she held my baby body up to the lady in the moon.

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The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder
The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

by Rebecca Wells

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