(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 28, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I was nine years old and very excited as most of us are on the morning of our birthdays. It was a school day and since my mother was still principal of the school where I was in fourth grade, I knew that there would be a little party for me after school. It was supposed to be a secret. So I dressed in my best winter skirt and sweater, and I rolled my long socks in a fat roll around my ankles and I tied a scarf around my neck, just like I had seen the big girls do. My mother didn't say anything when I came out of my room all dressed up wearing my long hair loose instead of braided as I usually did. So we walked on to school on a briskly cold morning.
The day passed and I managed to neither get dirty, get in trouble, nor kick Joe Devlin in the seat of his sorry pants. It was time for school to be over and the teacher gave us an assignment then asked me to come up to her desk for a minute after school. I had seen my mother, the Principal, come into my classroom earlier and she was talking quietly with my teacher. I didn't hear a word they said, but I just knew they were talking about my birthday party.
I walked up to my teacher's desk. "Sharon, did you use your comb on Mildred's hair today during recess?" "Well, yes ma'am, I did. Mildred had never seen a pink comb with a handle on it, and I was showing her mine. You want to see it?"
About that time my mother walked in, and there was not another kid in sight. I just knew they were waiting in the Big Room to surprise me. And I was equally sure that my mother had come to get me for the party. I gathered up my coat and my books while Mom talked quietly again with my teacher. Then my mother took me by the arm and led me out the door, down the steps and down the road toward my home in the holler. But first we stopped by Aunt Bett's house.
Maybe my birthday party was going to be at Aunt Bett's. I ran in and before I could say a word, my mother said, "Aunt Bett, do you have some of those seeds you use for head lice?"
Well. If there had been flies in the mountains in November, they would have flown into my open mouth. How could my mother be talking about head lice on my birthday? Aunt Bett went to her shelf of bottles and tins and pulled one of them down and handed it to my mother. I knew exactly what was in the tin, because I had put it there: seeds from the wild columbine. Even worse, I knew what they were used for.
Wild columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, grows very well in the mountains. It was one of my favorites, and we often collected the seeds from it after it finished blooming sometime in late July. In fact, we had just collected those same seeds and put them in the tin not very long before school started. When wild columbine seeds are crushed they have a wonderful fresh scent, and I always liked to rub my fingers through my hair whenever we had been collecting them. It made my hair smell good. Aunt Bett had told me all about the uses of the plant. The flowers were washed and sprinkled in fresh salads, the roots were cleaned and dried and made into an infusion for tea that was used as a diuretic or for a stomachache. Some people boiled the plant and used it as a hair rinse. The Native Americans chewed the seeds to relieve a headache. Aunt Bett had even told me that the old timers thought the crushed seeds had romantic powers. So I loved the crushed seeds, and I thought the flowers were beautiful. They were a bright orangish red and I always looked forward to seeing them bloom.
There was one other use for the seeds of the wild columbine. They were said to rid a person of head lice.
So as usual, I opened my mouth: "Aunt Bett, did you know it is my birthday today, and did you know that all I wanted for my birthday was a party, and since I didn't get a party yet, I guess I'll get a big surprise when I get home. Are you gonna be at my birthday, Aunt Bett, 'cause I know Ninna cooked enough for all of us and she probably baked a cake with icing on it and it's probably chocklit, 'cause she knows that's my favorite." My mother took hold of my arm and picked up the tin of wild columbine seeds and out the door we went. Aunt Bett never said a word.
I stomped all the way home. "What you gonna do with the seeds, Mama? I have no head lice, and I don't see what you need those seeds for." And my mother said this: "I have told you and told you to never let anyone ever use your comb, your hair brush, or your tooth brush. You know better than that. Mildred was out of school this week and I was told lice was the reason. We don't know if she is cured or not, but it doesn't matter, you will NOT have head lice in that hair of yours! It needs to be cut off anyway, first you get branches in it, then you come home with pine needles in it, and now you probably have head lice, but not for long!"
Head lice are very small parasitic insects that are equal opportunity. They certainly don't respect class distinctions, intelligence, cleanliness or climatic zones. They have even been recovered from prehistoric mummies. They travel very easily from head to head by transference on combs, brushes, or from the hair on one head touching the hair on another. I didn't know all of that at the time, and could have cared less, but I did know that my life was over. And I had only made it to my ninth birthday.
We had supper alone, and Ninna had baked a cake and decorated it with nine candles. I got some presents but I don't remember what they were. After the dishes had been cleared, my mother told me that I needn't bother doing my homework, since I wouldn't be going to school the next day, and told me to put on my oldest pajamas, then to come back to the kitchen. I did as I was told, but on my way to the kitchen, I hid the hair cutting scissors. She was not taking the scissors to my hair.
It was worse than that. She put a handful of lard on the top of my head and started rubbing it into my scalp and hair. When it was so full of lard that it must have weighed more than the rest of me, she started sprinkling the wild columbine seeds on my head and rubbing them into the lard. Once that was done, she put one of her old hairnets around my head, then wrapped it all in a scarf and pinned it turban style right in the middle of my forehead.
I was beyond humiliation. "I am going to shave my head," I said. "You will never see me again 'cause I'm running away from home. I don't have any bugs in my hair!"
I spent that night and all the next day in my room, plotting and planning, scissors in hand. November was a pretty cold month to be planning to shave my own head, and I knew that I was not allowed to touch my dad's razor. I remember taking all my clothes out of my closet and packing a few of them in my little suitcase that I used when I traveled with my parents. I thought about sneaking out of the window, but I was on the second floor and there was ice on the tin roof, so I figured I would slide down and probably break my neck and then they would all be sorry, but I'd be hurt. After all the plotting and planning, my mother finally came home and washed all that mess out of my hair with lye soap. I can only remember that my scalp burned, but I was so glad to be rid of the lard and wild columbine seeds in my hair, I didn't care. It was only then that my mother told me that she didn't think I had head lice, but she just used the treatment to make sure. That made me want to run away from home again.
Well, I didn't, and I didn't shave my head either. And thanks to the wild columbine and Aunt Bett, I never did have head lice. I never again let anyone else use my comb either, not even my mother. But I do have wild columbine growing in my yard because you never know when it might be needed.
All information is from my family chronicles with verification from these sources: http://www.piam.com/mms_garden/plants.html
All photos are from Plant Files with special thanks to: Soulflier, Willbike, Mosquitoflats, and Equilibrium.