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The shampoo-and-set culture is part of a bygone era

Storytellers, I often say, are those who find stories in the simplest occurrences. Sometimes, it's just a phrase or a word that will stop me in my tracks and send me spiraling toward a new story.

Sitting with a friend at a bereavement visitation recently, a nice-looking woman came over to extend her sympathies. She took my friend's hand, leaned close and whispered her parting words. "Now, if any of you'uns need me, just holler."

All the activity around me stopped as I absorbed that for a moment. "You'uns," I repeated softly as Lori, face streaked with tears, tilted her head and looked quizzical.

I explained. "You just don't hear that word much anymore."

And for another moment, I pondered how words like that slip out of our Southern lexicon and we don't miss them until one day someone uses it and we realize our ears have been starved for that word.

Just now I have opened an e-mail from a reader who resides in a small Southern town that has yet to be invaded by a mall or super discount store. That is to say that all the activity happens in town, not outside city limits. Her opening words have made me feel sentimental and thrown me back to bygone times. And they've given me a story.

Her message began with, "Today while sitting under the hair dryer at the beauty shop, I read your column."

The image was immediately sharp in my head. Several tan-colored chairs, some with cracked or peeling imitation leather, lined up in a row with hooded dryers attached and women covered in black vinyl bibs, their knees pressed primly together, baking underneath the contraptions. Each is holding a magazine or newspaper in her hands and, periodically, they shout to each other a piece of interesting news or tidbit of gossip.

"Did you hear tell 'bout Virginia McGee?" one will ask, then announce dramatically, "Pregnant."

"My goodness. Must be a change-of-life baby," another will comment, using yet another phrase that has fallen by the wayside, having been replaced with the less delicate word, menopause.

Now, tell me, how many women sit under a hair dryer these days as they get their weekly ritual of a shampoo-and-set? And our language is losing two other long cherished, frequently used phrases: beauty shop and beautician.

To my generation and those behind us, it is now "salon" and "stylist," and we are, at best, scheduled for visits every six weeks. Though in my case, it's always much longer because I never seem to find the time, putting it off until it simply cannot be put off any longer.

But the women of the shampoo-and-set, beautician-beauty-shop era are to be envied and even admired. We of my generation should learn from them and practice the art of diligent weekly beauty maintenance. We should embrace a couple of hours of "me time" regularly. Like them, we should routinely place ourselves at the top of our priority lists.

Here's another thing that worries me about the dwindling numbers of the shampoo-and-set ladies: if they go, where are we going to get our reliable town news? The news that is shared by word-of-mouth, such as who's ailing, dying, marrying, divorcing, expecting or getting too big for his britches? That sort of important stuff.

Potentially, we're facing a communication crisis, a break-down in vital gossiping that is kept alive by the stream of women who filter in and out from under the hair dryers of the South's beloved beauty shops.

"Scooter's movin' back to town," I reported to Penelope Ann. "Divorced his wife and quit his job in Atlanta."

"Really? Where did'cha hear that?"

"Beauty shop," I replied authoritatively, with complete confidence in my source.

"Ooohhhh!" Her eyes widened and she nodded, acknowledging the information's reliability.

After all, everyone knows that if you hear it at the beauty shop, it's the gospel truth.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)" and "The Town That Came A-Courtin'."