Hair Care

I am walking through a neighborhood subdivision. It’s not far from my house. People ride bikes. Some are sitting on lawn chairs in driveways, taking in a sunset. Viva la quarantine.

I pass an open garage. Inside the garage is an old man and old woman talking, laughing. They are white-haired and small. His posture is hunched. She is sitting on a tall stool, wearing a towel over her body, keeping a still. He cuts her hair with scissors.

The old man moves around her like a guy who knows what he is doing. You can always tell people who know what they’re doing. My mother, for example, doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing when it comes to cutting hair.

I base this statement on my entire childhood. My mother used to cut my hair on the front porch, like all Baptists. She used dull, rusty, tetanus-covered scissors, and high-powered army horse clippers. Her method for haircuts was eyeballing it.

One time she was giving me a Fundamentalist Special out on the front porch when the clipper guard popped off. The blade ran straight into a virgin patch of my hair and cut me clear to the scalp. I could feel the blades bite my skin.

The first thing that happened was that my mother covered her mouth and said, “Sweet Jesus.”

My mother didn’t say the Lord’s name like that unless communists had invaded U.S. soil, or Conway Twitty had a new album.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

My mother started to laugh. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

She was snorting now.

I looked in the reflection of the porch window. I saw a kid looking back at me with a chunk missing from his skull. My red hair had an aircraft landing strip in the center.

She was purple-faced, rolling on the porch, and losing bladder control.

“My head!” was all I could say.

“We can fix it!” she said between gasps.

There was no fixing this. This represented the end of my social career. I was 12 years old, my ego was so fragile that it had to be kept in a protective case or it would shatter. I was pudgy, with a full face. My hair was the only thing keeping me from looking like a human Cabbage Patch doll.

And so it was that my mother attempted to repair my hairstyle. Her only choice was to remove the clipper guard and shave me down to the skin. I watched locks of my hair fall onto the porch and I cried. So help me, I cried.

When I looked into the mirror, I ran my hand along my smooth scalp and couldn’t believe the resemblance I bore to Uncle Fester.

That was a really bad period of my life. I tried to stay inside for a month.

The old man in the garage is obviously nothing like my mother. He is clipping this woman’s white hair with fancy scissors, cordless clippers, and he even has a waterproof cape. A man who has waterproof cape is no hack. He is a pro.

“Have room for one more?” I ask, stopping to watch.

And I’m not entirely joking. I haven’t had a haircut since this quarantine began. My hair is so long that I can’t even wear a hat because it’s too tight on my head. Last week, I almost let my wife cut my hair out of desperation. But, recall if you will, what my mother did to me.

He answers, “I would, but my wife has a weak immune system, we’ve been social-distancing for seventy-three days.”

I don’t come any closer. Instead, I watch from a distance while he flutters around her, doing his work. It doesn’t take long to realize that his wife is not well. Whenever he speaks she responds in a loud voice and she seems confused. He has to remind her, for example, what his name is.

“I’m Larry, sweetie,” he says. And he says it two or three times. “Remember, darling, it’s me, your husband.’”

“Oh!” the woman says. “My husband Larry, you’d like him. Have you seen him?”

After this goes on for a few minutes, he doesn’t bother correcting her anymore, he just lets her go. Soon, he is even playing along. “Your husband sounds like an interesting man, ma’am.”

“Oh, he is. He used to cut my hair. Did you know that?”

“Did he now?”

“Oh, yes, Larry could cut women’s hair if he wanted. He was good, my Larry.”

I watch the elderly gentleman move around the old woman with the grace of an artist. There’s an art to cutting hair that has nothing to do with hair. In my lifetime, I’ve visited my share of tonsorial parlors. The best barber is a master at making a body feel comfortable in his chair.

He lets her talk. He isn’t interrupting her. I watch most of the haircut, a few kids on bikes join me. We’re all standing on the curb, gawking. This is a quarantine. Entertainment is hard to come by.

When he pronounces his wife’s head done, he begins sweeping the white hair clippings from the garage with a broom.

“Forty-one years,” he says to me. “We’ve been married forty-one years.” He doesn’t add anything to this. And I don’t think he needs to. We are strangers, and I’ve just seen something I won’t forget.

I bid him good day. I keep walking.

And I am eternally grateful that my mother gave up cutting hair.

25 comments

  1. Anthony - May 5, 2020 6:31 am

    sweet. The story, the man and you.

    Reply
  2. Naomi - May 5, 2020 7:56 am

    Sean, I am up at this ungodly hour because I have a stomach ache. I am the director of a Christian missionary organization and I have to complete our IRS tax return today. It’s 35 pages long and they ask questions that only a Philadelphia lawyer can answer. I few years ago, I called IRS about a question on they form and they didn’t know the answer. But I am primarily writing about your haircut. My younger brother did that to himself when he was about 12 years old. My mother gave him money to go to the barber shop but he wanted to use the money for something else. My mother didn’t react like your mother; she started screaming and I thought that she was going to faint. My brother never would go to the barber. Believe it or not, his barber made house calls as a courtesy to my father. He went by our house on his way home so he didn’t mind it. I never understood it because I loved going to the barber shop with my father when I was a little girl.

    Reply
  3. Christina - May 5, 2020 8:10 am

    I’m losing my bladder control too imagining your airstrip. I actually had a similar experience with my grandpa who used to be a barber. He turned my seven year old short hair into a Beethoven style perm, so I can totally relate to the trauma. But bless that old man and his wife! What a heartwarming, live quarantine entertainment for you all too!

    Reply
  4. Lita - May 5, 2020 8:59 am

    Love this story, Sean. Close to my heart.

    I was still working as a hairdresser when my best beloved and I married 46 years ago. I’ve cut his hair every five weeks, ever since we met in 1970. I cut his hair a few days ago, and he said: “Best one, ever.” Then he hugged me. I’m so grateful that we were together when quarantining began.

    Reply
  5. Beth Ann Chiles - May 5, 2020 11:08 am

    The love shows through even in bad haircuts — I think everyone has experienced a bad one. For ladies it might have been a bad perm. Or a bad coloring. My boys refer to one of my haircuts when they were younger as the “birds nest”. So there you go. Instead of being shaved bald you could have had a birds nest on your head. 🙂 Seize the day, cram that hat on your head and enjoy the sunshine in your backyard. This is the stuff that writers write about – just like you.

    Reply
  6. turtlekid - May 5, 2020 11:57 am

    Truly hilarious! I was laughing out loud at the first part, your mom’s attempt at hair cutting. Then came the sobering part with elderly dementia lady forgetting. Wonderful reminder of life. “To everything there is a season.”

    Reply
  7. Cathi Russell - May 5, 2020 12:03 pm

    Shawn, I have no haircut stories ro compare but loved the visuals when you spoke! Thank you for my laugh first thing on a Tuesday!

    Reply
  8. Jill Jeffrey - May 5, 2020 12:20 pm

    Sean, I gave myself the terrible haircut when I was five! My hair was long and beautiful and my mom would tug and scrape it every day into a high ponytail with a rubber band. Ouch! So, one day I took the scissors and cut my ponytail off at the rubber band making the hair right there about 1/4 inch long😂. Very quick trip to mom’s hairdresser who repaired it as well as she could so, basically I got what I wanted-no more ponytails!
    That’s a very sweet story about Larry and his dearie. Thanks for noticing.

    Reply
  9. Ramona Brookins - May 5, 2020 12:25 pm

    Sean,
    I laughed so hard about your Mother giving you a hair cut! I was at the point where tears were in my eyes. My dog got up out of his bed and came to me and make sure I was alright. It was hilarious!! Love reading your columns!

    Reply
  10. Terri - May 5, 2020 12:37 pm

    Oh the range of emotions you just led me through. You are a Master of Words.

    Reply
  11. JUDY M OBAR - May 5, 2020 12:39 pm

    Sean, your column brought back a lot of memories. I gave myself a bad haircut more than once, but sincerely hope I never do it again. I once gave our poodle a trim, and he actually looked too embarrassed to go out of the house for a few weeks. My husband was in the Air Force, and the worst thing about our many moves was finding someone to cut my hair. In the early 1980s when we lived in southern Italy, I had about three consecutive bad haircuts by different people who came highly recommended. My husband took one look at the third haircut and said, “I can do better than that.” My hair grew, and he became my stylist for several years. The scissors did slip once and nipped my ear, but that is another story.

    Reply
  12. Sharron Paris - May 5, 2020 1:44 pm

    Oh my, I am sitting here with tears in my eyes, from laughing, because I had a similar experience giving my son a haircut long ago. The poor boy was forbidden to wear a hat in school and he was so humiliated. It was such a horrible experience for him. Funny thing is that years later he chose to wear his hair extremely short. Thank goodness hair grows back.

    Reply
  13. Jackie McClung - May 5, 2020 1:54 pm

    There was a time when I gave perms to my wife and her mother. I did those 2-3 times each year for probably 15 years. It took a couple of years for my M-I-L to decide she would trust me to give her one. She decided I had done a good job on my wife so maybe I did know what I was doing. I can’t buy the perm kits now. They are ‘for professional use only’ now. My wife cut my hair about two weeks ago – about time for another one.

    Reply
  14. Ann - May 5, 2020 2:08 pm

    Sweetness ❤️

    Reply
  15. Anne Arthur - May 5, 2020 2:15 pm

    Heartwarming and sweet. At the same time raising chuckles when remembering how teenage-me tried to cut my own hair… the result…don’t ask.

    Reply
  16. Ala Red Clay Girl - May 5, 2020 2:19 pm

    I needed this belly laugh this morning! I’ve cut my husband’s & sons’ hair for 10 years now. While I haven’t ever let the razor slip like that, my youngest son swore I once gave him a Moe haircut (3 Stooges). Keep the stories coming!

    Reply
  17. Steve Winfield [Lifer] - May 5, 2020 2:24 pm

    After years of begging dad finally let us trade the “Sergeant Carter” for an early Beatles. Half way over the ears with bangs. I was probably 7, my brother 5, & I decided to trim his bangs. Got a towel & clothes pin, scissors & comb & cut a line above his eyebrows. Wasn’t quite straight so I went again. And again. And again. Finally he just had a nub in front.
    Couple hours later dad gets home. Half pissed, half laughing, but Steve has to be punished. He’s going to let Barry cut my hair in return. Later after supper. For about 2 hours it drags out & I’m terrified & crying. Dad gets out the scissors, clippers & puts me in a chair.
    Barry’s coming unglued with excitement. Last minute dad says I’m not getting it cut THIS TIME. But if I so much as think of cutting Barry’s hair again.

    Reply
  18. Lori Brown - May 5, 2020 4:23 pm

    My parents have been gone for a few years and they had a love like that. Now my 86 year old mother-in-law is taking care of my 90 year old father-in-law who has had another stroke. She does it out of love and doesn’t see it as a hardship because she has seen worse. She loves with a mighty ferocity and we all love her for it. He has become mellow in his later years and can’t sing her praises enough. It embarrasses her and I love her even more. I will never live up to her, but I will always give it my best shot.

    Reply
  19. Terri - May 5, 2020 4:26 pm

    ❤️❤️❤️

    Reply
  20. Marylin Anderson - May 5, 2020 4:47 pm

    Terri, me, too. Laughing out loud and then weeping for that sweet couple. My sister is almost to that point. It’s heartbreaking, but so sweet when Sean tells it.

    Reply
  21. Linda Moon - May 5, 2020 4:48 pm

    The only thing I can imagine that might be worse than a Fundamentalist Special would be Fundamentalist Dancing. Lots of mothers and husbands and wives have made messes of their attempts at tonsorial art. I will not divulge the identities of anyone I’ve encountered or of those who have encountered my failed attempts. Sweet Jesus, Sean, I’m grateful that you’re observing LIFE in the time of quarantine. Viva la Stories and Posts!!

    Reply
  22. Brenda - May 5, 2020 6:08 pm

    Sweet story reminds me of my father in law who had dementia. He didn’t know us at a certain point, he used to tell people I was his friend and I was nice to him. I’ll take that.

    Reply
  23. Renee Miranda - May 6, 2020 8:49 am

    I was literally crying with laughter while you described your mama cutting your hair. That is one of the funniest things you have ever written. Thank you! I needed it.

    Reply
  24. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - May 6, 2020 11:56 am

    My mom used to cut my hair to save money when I was young (mid 1950s). We were a military family, so there wasn’t wasn’t a lot of money to go around. She used her sewing scissors and an old manual clipper, rather than cart me out to the base to get me a buzz cut from a military barber for probably 25 cents or so. She was no barber and made a pretty bad job of it. The worst of it was, the clippers were dull and tended to bind-up and rip the hair out, rather than cut it. It was pretty painful and my head looked like chunks had been ripped out. My dad finally put his foot down and insisted on taking me to that military barber. I was not fond of the buzz cut, but there was no pain and I looked like most boys in our neighborhood, where many other military families also lived.

    Now, about the old man and his wife. That was very touching and reminded me of my wife’s late aunt and uncle. He took care of her at home as long as was humanly possible and treated her tenderly even when her Alzheimers made her rage at him. After she was placed in a nursing home that handled cases like hers, he visited and sang to her constantly until she passed away after about three more years. He survived for a while afterwards, but he missed his wife, who really was a lovely person inside, despite what the disease had done to her mind and body. I miss them both.

    Reply
  25. Martha Williams - May 6, 2020 2:31 pm

    Oh! Does this ever bring back memories!!! I remember when my boys were about the age of Sean and I bought a pair of hair clippers to save money! It was a lot harder than I thought!
    …actually it was a disaster! I cut and cut …. It was uselessly!
    I couldn’t cut hair! The oldest boy was horrified!

    I will never forget the Look on his face when he looked in the mirror …Horror, disbelief, anger, doom… He knew it would be months before he could be seen in public! He would not survive the jokes, the wise remarks, the snickers …the humiliation from his buddies… There was NOTHING I could say… Saying I am sorry would not help the chopped up hair or the heart of my preteen son!!

    Calmly I cleaned up the clippers and put them back in the box they came in and announced, “I am returning the clippers and we are going to Wind Creek!😇

    Reply

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