By John W. Fountain
The cost was just $5. So I grabbed two. Two sets of electric shears for my father and son ritual, though I now only have one little boy’s hair to cut. My own hair has succumbed to cowlicks and age, and is easily cleared with a straight edge and shaving cream in the shower.
“Hey, I can’t believe this price. I think I’ll get two,” I said to my mother, speaking on my Blackberry. “I can cut Malik’s hair until he’s 19.”
My son Malik is 7. I gave him his first hair cut as he sat in a highchair in our kitchen, cupping his head in my hands while he wept and his big sister pestered him, not long after he had taken his first steps. Malik is my third and youngest son. The others are grown now—going on 31 and 29. When they were small, I cut their hair too. My stepfather cut mine as a boy.
Cutting my boys’ hair was first a matter of necessity, though it became a ritual between father and sons, one that still holds deep meaning for me, a collection of priceless intimate moments that shall last a lifetime. And in a time when I see so many fathers neglecting the time, missing irredeemable, precious moments with their children, I cannot help but shake my head.
I became a father at 17. Short on funds, and understanding the necessity to keep my boys well groomed—as important for their self-esteem as well as my sense of duty as a father—I decided that I should buy a set of clippers and teach myself to cut hair. I must have paid about 30 bucks or so for that first set. I could barely afford it but figured that after only a couple of cuts it would pay for itself.
The cost paid by my boys was a different matter. They mostly silently suffered through my learning pains, of the lining made too far back in their heads as to render them as cowlicks-stricken little boys. Through the painful nicks, and the plugs made by the sudden slip of the hand, or the craters in their short afros that sometimes rose like peaks and valleys as I struggled to cut their hair evenly. Then there were the high-top fades, some of which on my eldest son, until I had perfected them, looked like Gumby makeovers.
And yet, each time I called for them to meet me in a room for our ritual they came. Truth is, they didn’t have a choice, though sometimes I suspected they would much rather have sat in a real barber’s chair. The year my boys and I lived in a quaint English countryside town with my new wife, who was a British Marshall scholar, my barber skills—still perfecting—came in handy. It also saved us a ton as I buzzed their heads in the living room, Lewes Castle glowing just beyond our window.
Later, even when I did have the money and my available time was severely taxed by work and other responsibilities, I still opted to cut my boys’ hair, drawn by then by the intimacy of the ritual—the solo time with my sons, talking face to face, cradling their heads, meticulously and carefully grooming them from boyhood to adolescence to nearly adulthood, knowing that time and life and space would eventually stand between us.
It was not always easy to find the time to cut their hair. I found instead that I had to take the time.
That has been the most fundamental task of fatherhood, even when I have been low on funds: To take the time—to cut hair, to throw a ball, to visit their classroom, to talk or just to sit together in silence. To understand that while material substance is important, nothing outweighs a man’s ability and willingness to touch our sons—and daughters—tenderly, gently, innocently as fathers, by our presence in their lives, to look into their eyes and say, “I love you.” To show by our actions, even more than by our words, “I love you.”
And yet, I see so many boys—and girls—nowadays, for whom father has become the invisible man. And I see fathers whose disappearing acts leave their children longing for his touch—men who have allowed their disconnection from their children’s mothers—for whatever reason—to divide them from their own flesh and blood.
Upon my divorce from my oldest sons’ mother 18 years ago, I understood that one had nothing to do with the other. So that even when maintaining my relationship with my children was made rocky by the static that often occurs between estranged parents, this much I understood: I could not abandon ship—as my father had, so long ago that I have trouble remembering his face.