Shirley Temple Curls and Black Girl Dreams

By February 2, 2019 November 20th, 2020 No Comments

You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.

—C.S. Lewis


Songs of the Day:

“This Is A Man’s World,” James Brown with Luciano Pavoratti

“Queen of the Night Arias”; The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte); Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sumi Jo


Like millions of little Black girls in the 1960s with 4C hair (the kinkiest of kinky), I spent Saturday mornings sitting by the stove getting my hair pressed. And if it was a special occasion, my mother would take the time to wind my hair into Shirley Temple curls. One Saturday, morning, after watching Heidi on TV the night before, I sat on a stool, hands cupping my ears to protect them, daydreaming about the Alps, while my mother wound my newly-straightened hair into Heidi-like ringlets. “I used to dream of going to Switzerland too,” she whispered. My mother had seen the movie when she was a little girl. Surprised, I forced myself from turning around to look at her, her past warnings sounding in my head: Don’t move your head, Gael-Sylvia, or you’ll get burned.

“What do you mean?!” I asked.

Our family had been among the thousands who watched the special airing of the movie Heidi with Shirley Temple as a Friday evening special event. In the Black community, there were TV shows and movies universally regarded as special occasions. We didn’t have the 24-hour access connecting us to voices from the past that we do today. This was a special occasion and Shirley Temple curls and this Black girl’s dream of the Alps started in that moment of ear-holding, heat rising from the stove, and the whisper of my mother’s voice. Perfect soil for a dream to be planted.

As my mother pressed and curled her Black girl’s hair, I witnessed an invisible connection between the curly haired White girl on TV and my mother. My mother had dreams? She had dreams?! It was a foreign thought, but I held it, trying to imagine her as a little girl, and as an adult mother, carrying that secret longing in her body. Who would have ever imagined this? The notion belied her day-to-day role and responsibilities as a mother, wife, secretary, laundress, housekeeper, dressmaker, grocery shopper, teacher, baker, neighbor, and participant in numerous community activities.

From that moment on I never saw her in the same way. Within that new thought were the seeds I would quietly carry as my own possibility of making her dream of Switzerland come true through me. The vision, the dream, the pondering of possibilities improved my reading skills as I devoured everything about a place I’d never heard mentioned in our household. As I observed and listened closely to others my mother’s age, I sometimes quietly inquired about the dreams I assumed were most privately held within their little girl selves. Several who were musicians spoke of dreams they’d had of going to college. Others, who like my grandmother, made the regular drive to what seemed to me to be far off places—Baltimore, the cotton fields in Arkansas (my grandmother), and Alabama—to visit family (all places that seemed exotic and far away to me), spoke of dreams of traveling to what felt exciting and different to them, like Hawaii. One woman spoke of being a concert pianist; I didn’t remember her ever even owning a piano.

Heidi gave my mother and me something in common—a dream that sparked an insatiable hunger to learn more about others, places they lived, and the dreams they held within. Prompted by Heidi, and Shirley Temple’s portrayal of the little orphan girl, images of the famous Swiss Alps and the goats that contribute to their famous cheese, Swiss chocolates, hiking in the hills for wild blueberries and the elusive Edelweiss, baking fresh bread in a Swiss home filled my dreams. The vision was fed with the mailman presenting gifts from afar—stamps and postmarks from my growing number of pen pals from lands I could access only by plane or ship. My curiosity about the world has yet to lessen and my appetite grows with my dreams to see more of the sacred places where other’s hold the longings of their hearts. As my dear sister-friend, Tanya says, “We’ve walked on water! Why would we ever want to stay in the boat?” She’s referring to Matthew 14: 22:31, when Jesus encouraged Peter to get out of the boat he rode in with the other disciples and walk on the water with him, which he did, until fear took over and he started to sink.

Tanya’s and my thinking is this: why would you settle for anything less than miraculous? Why stay in the boat? I continue to walk in visions revealed in dreams that become come true.

At times, my few months in Switzerland was my unknowing introduction to life on an island, where I’d later spend my time in the Peace Corps. I was isolated because of my Christian faith and values. I didn’t drink, so I was mocked by other American high school exchange students. I didn’t wild out, like my two exchange sisters, so although we were friendly, we didn’t hang out. I didn’t have a boyfriend, which pushed me into silent observation of others sporting “promise rings” and the treasured varsity jackets from their athletic boyfriends. On the flip side, I liked what I learned in school and how I felt reading my Bible. And I enjoyed indulging my curiosity about a different culture, especially accompanying my Swiss mother to her weekly lunch gathering with other stay-at-home mothers, following their grocery shopping routines, though I was the only non-adult present (I’d always been comfortable with any generation) and couldn’t understand a word they said.

Before I’d left the US, I’d begun making new friends from the various neighborhoods that fed my high school, those segregated by affluence and ethnicity—Black, Caucasian, Latino—and with foreign students studying from abroad. All of this integrated our household, and I participated in social activities in their homes, went on beach trips, and joined youth groups on campus to study the Bible.

In Switzerland, my curiosity and appreciation of other ways of being granted me an invitation into the segregated part of Basel where the Turkish gypsies lived. Until I sat down to eat with the gypsies, played with their children, listened to their stories, and learned the songs of their hearts. I didn’t know this was a first for them. They hadn’t interacted socially with anyone outside their community. And when I got back to my host family, they couldn’t understand why I’d wanted to visit with the gypsies. There was no way my host family could see any reason to mingle with the gypsies. And whether the gypsies had the desire or not, they saw no way to reach out and connect with the outside community. But I had found a way and learned a valuable lesson: making a way out of no way requires being uncomfortable and being open.

Living in Switzerland provided me with the opportunity to make a choice: discard my identity or embrace my difference. I chose to embrace me and be open to learning from others, even in my silence. Having beliefs that differ from others is as much a culture shock as clearing customs in a new homeland. I’ve lived all over, and it isn’t always home for me until I can find and make peace with who I am and where I am, regardless of whether I know the language or not.

In the quietness of those lonely homesick moments in Switzerland, I may have felt like I was living on a remote island, but in those moments, I also learned that you can’t live on a remote island and not learn to embrace silence and the autonomy that comes from being isolated. My faith says that I’m never alone, and I carry my faith wherever I go, whether in the company of the like-minded or isolated from the presence of fellow believers. I do so now, and I did so then. I returned home with the sure-fire belief that my time in Switzerland had filled me with memories of dreams come true: from picking blueberries to eating my favorite breakfast in a Swiss chalet—homemade bircher muesli to accompany the freshly baked bread, to Swiss chocolates and every souvenir I once gazed upon in that junior high school library. All were treasures that remained beyond the joyless moments, treasures that came with being open to new people, places, and dreaming big dreams of possibilities.

I learned that I could choose to drown in a sea of tears and self-pity or rise up and look for the good around me and walk, skip, crawl, run, jump, dance to whatever song played in my head, to just sing it and move toward the good. That time in Switzerland was when I learned to live and lead from a place of joy. It was a choice.


I encourage you to be open and try on the joy of discomfort by trying something new. Better still, put yourself in the company of people who live in a world so different from yours that you become the bridge to possibilities in relationships that others may have thought impossible. Start by being your own best friend. Set aside time to spend with yourself—maybe once a week—doing something festive, exploring a new part of the city you live in, whatever interests and excites you. Have fun. Push the limits. Do something that sparks your imagination, a sense of joy, of fun. Play. If it interests you, let these new images, sounds, ideas that stems from this time with yourself inspire and feed your creative projects.

My hope and prayer is that you experience the joy of your own company. Being alone periodically can bring out the small child in us that’s afraid of the monsters under the bed when our imaginations run wild in the darkness. While embracing that time with ourselves can cause us to explore, to embrace possibilities, and to grow.

Gael-Sylvia Pullen

Gael-Sylvia Pullen

Gael-Sylvia, award winning McDonald’s franchisee, philanthropist, and speaker, works globally with industry and community leaders to uncover the power in acknowledging the good around them. She has helped thousands lead from a place of joy to positively affect the decision-making abilities needed to recover from loss, increase leadership development, and create a productive, balanced life. Book Gael-Sylvia for an Event