When the barber is your father

“Locks of Love” in Main Line Today (June 2005).

Perhaps it’s a bit odd, but my brothers and I only ever had one barber: our father. Businessman by day, barber by night, Dad cut the hair of his seven sons like only a father can. Snipping here, shaving there, he played the role of barber with the same ambition behind his role as father – to make his sons look great.

The father of so many children first picked up the clippers in the most unlikely of places – the seminary. As an Augustinian seminarian at Villanova University, he was handed a pair of shears and thus practiced the art of the 1950s crew cut on his classmates. For seven years he shaved those celibate heads, until he decided his real calling in life belonged to a classmate’s sister – my mother. Seven sons later, and he has yet to put down the shears. That’s some 1500 haircuts and counting.

My father’s barbershop was mobile. From kitchen to driveway and from basement to the deck of a rented vacation home at the beach – they all collected their share of clumps of brown and blonde hair. More recently, my father’s barbershop has set up semi-permanent camp in the basement – complete with a vintage barber’s chair he received from a retiring barber in the neighborhood.

Unlike the neighborhood barber, these trips to my father’s chair provided much more than local gossip and the occasional political debate. Rather, they provided special moments in time when a son could spend some one-on-one time with his father. A family of nine makes for a crowded household, and that barbershop afforded anyone who sat in it the benefit of time spent with a truly wonderful human being.

An introvert by nature, and private by family genetics, perhaps I didn’t always make the best use of this time with my father. Even in these silences, though, we grew closer.

And we grew closer in those times when one of us dared to break the silence. Those haircuts gave me the opportunity to hear my father reminisce about his youth, about his friends, his parents, his siblings. In that chair I got to know my father when he wasn’t a father, when he himself was a son, a brother, a student.

Likewise, that chair afforded my father the chance to catch up with his sons. From school to sports, from friends to work, he always prodded ever so gently with his questions. They were questions of concern, though with a careful measure of respect of privacy thrown in as well. Perhaps this led to some awkward moments on the chair – especially during those times when you were due for a haircut just after a major screw-up. Schoolyard fight. Underage drinking. Detention at school. It was at these times that the barber’s chair was especially quiet. Dad would break the silence, though, not with lectures expressing his disappointment. Rather, he shared his concern, prodded a little less gently, and expressed his love.

A trip to the barber may get you a shave and a haircut, but when that barber is your father, the time shared is almost sacramental.

Which is why I dread the day I have to visit a real barbershop. I’ve done it once, when my father was recovering from heart bypass surgery, and I can’t comprehend doing it again.

My trip to that barbershop – at the age of 25 – was sadly comical. I sat there in silence, not knowing what to say. And this stranger cutting my hair, he said nothing either. He simply didn’t know the right questions to ask.

“How’s work going?”

“Any progress with that novel yet?”

“Have any trips coming up?”

He was a complete stranger. I sat there in silence, feeling the part of Benedict Arnold for this act of betrayal. I walked out of that barbershop feeling dirty and down, not clean, refreshed and renewed.

It was a sad reminder of the inevitable. Someday I’ll have to visit a barbershop again – I pray for not some time. When that time arrives, though, I know I’ll find myself in a lonely and mournful chair.

It’s not every day one finds love in the clippings.

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