“I think it’s time,” said my wife one winter morning.
Ellie, our youngest daughter, was in desperate need of her first haircut.
It looked as if a custodial worker had taken a wet mop, plopped it onto Ellie’s head and sawed off the handle. When not pulled back with a hair tie, Ellie’s facial features were indistinguishable, hidden in the wake of a massive wave of overgrowth surging from forehead to chin like an unruly weed or some fantastic furry fountain.
Eating was nearly impossible for the poor child, for when she passed food to her mouth, her tresses were fly paper- snatching sticky victuals that would have otherwise been ingested. Bits of banana, avocado chunks, black bean innards and Spaghetti O’s clung to the hanging heap so that by the end of breakfast Ellie’s locks had already accumulated a good size afternoon snack.
Eventually, the food worked like so many tiny anchors, dragging the girl’s head downward toward her plastic food tray. Though she always put up a good fight, inevitably, the burden of the afternoon provisions would overwhelm Ellie’s underdeveloped neck muscles until she was face down in tomato sauce, red froth pulsing from the corners of her mouth.
I have to say that even though Ellie’s haircut was long overdue, I was still a little taken aback when my wife told me that this time I would be the one to accompany her to the salon. My wife had taken both of our other children for their first cuts and made a pretty big deal out of the whole thing, securing the first snips of hair in Zip-lock baggies that ultimately were labeled and stored in baby scrapbooks. I made it known that this idea was absolutely ridiculous and that I would never be participating in such gratuitous preservation rituals. I called this practice Van Gogh-ing to my wife and she just shook her head and sighed like I did not know the first thing about anything, most importantly about our three children.
By the time I had Ellie packed up and in her car seat, my other daughter, Sydney (5 years old) decided she wanted bangs (whatever that means) and so I found myself once again tying shoelaces and struggling with jacket zippers.
We were all just about out the basement door when my wife edged up next to me with a transparent bag in her left hand.
I think I rolled my eyes.
“People who don’t know anything about art shouldn’t talk about art,” said my wife. “Or artists for that matter.”
I reluctantly took the plastic bag. “I do know something,” I said. “I know that Van Gogh was a painter who cut off his own-“
“You do not know Van Gogh.”
My wife had taken a slew of art classes in college and so her knowledge in this area far outweighed mine.
I slipped the bag into my jacket pocket and turned to walk out the door. Sydney was already climbing into the van. My wife grabbed my arm and stopped me.
“You know the best thing about a painting?” she said in a delicate tone.
I shook my head. In her car seat, Ellie sucked energetically on her pacifier.
“It’s a moment in time, captured. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t grow. If preserved, a painting, the moment, can live on in the same form… for lifetimes.”
With that thought she shut the door hard enough to rattle the frame.
We found a salon and we were ushered onto the cutting room floor. I sat in the frosty barber’s chair, Ellie secure in my lap.
The stylist fit us each with a slippery smock, mine solid black, Ellie's bright blue and adorned with colorful prints of baby ducks, kittens and puppies. Sydney sat patiently in the waiting area, leafing through a large magazine.
A giant mirror loomed before us and in the reflection Ellie's eyes locked with mine. I immediately sensed fear and betrayal in her stare. Her expression interrogated me. How could you do this to me, Dad? How dare you bring me to this room of despair, Dad? I will never, EVER trust you again, Dad! Tilting her head back over her shoulder, Ellie looked up at me, her eyes brimming with tears. I hurriedly looked away, suddenly wanted this whole thing to stop, to cease to be, to not exist.
I squeezed my daughter tighter to my body and straightened up in the chair.
With her back to us, the stylist was assembling her instruments, and in a flurry of thought I wondered if I could leap out of the chair and bolt out of the salon without her knowing, without being seen. My eyes leapt frantically to the coat rack where Ellie's jacket rested securely beneath mine. I could grab the garments and we could put them on in the car. But what about daughter number two? Where was her coat? And what about her haircut? Before I could make a move the stylist turned toward us, scissors and squirt bottle at the ready.
“NO!” My voice was quick and sharp.
The hairdresser looked down at me, confused.
I recovered from my outburst saying, “I just… don't think you should squirt her hair with water. It might scare her.”
The stylist nodded and put the bottle back on the shelf.
Behind us a teenage girl was sitting down for a cut. Her voice was piercing and sure, “I know how I want my hair cut, Mom! I don't need your help.”
A softer voice, the mother's responded, “But you always looked so cute with bangs. You look so beautiful with bangs. I remember when you were younger-“
“No one wears their hair like that anymore, Mom. Will you just please go sit down and read a magazine. I will be fine here on my own.”
On my own. The words echoed in my ears and then sliced through me like a winter wind. I shivered.
Movement again from our stylist. I looked in horror as she approached, armed with comb and scissors.
“I’m going to have to work fast,” the stylist said. “You will have to hold her head still for me.”
Hold her head still? Was this lady serious? An image of me standing up on the chair with my one year old in a headlock hacked through my thoughts. What kind of a father was I? What kind of a world did we live in where parents held down their daughters’ heads and allowed strangers with sharp tools free reign to cut and snip as they please? What if Ellie slipped out of my hold and the scissors stabbed her? This was terrible. I was not a trustworthy parent, I was not a dependable dad… I was… a monster.
“I just want my hair to make me look older,” came the young girl’s voice from behind us. “I’m sick of people telling me I have a baby face.”
The scissors danced back and forth in front of Ellie’s face like a cobra ready to strike and the young victim unveiled her first terror-filled screech.
Ellie’s air raids (as we playfully called her screams) were very effective. Ellie always got what she wanted. Always. It was a pattern my wife and I were not proud of, but when the alternative is ruptured ear drums, there isn’t much of a choice.
My palms pressed to either side of Ellie’s head like a vice, I reacted naturally to Ellie’s scream: I closed my eyes tightly and ducked away from the piercing wail pressing my ear to my shoulder thus saving one drum from damage.
Ellie squirmed in my grip like a bass on a fish hook.
I opened my eyes, half expecting to see a scrap of ear in her lap.
Instead, I saw hair. The first cut.
Down went the feathery tuft. It floated slowly, so slowly toward the bright blue smock. The screeching stopped as Ellie tried to sort things out.
Free from the hair that had plagued her vision for the last eight months! No longer would this poor girl squint through a wispy follicle forest at a darkened, distorted world. She was free.
I tenderly took up the fallen hair. I held it out before her like an injured bird.
“Look Ellie. It’s your hair.” I was surprised to hear my voice break a little as I spoke.
Ellie’s eyes grew big, round and beautiful. I think she was still in shock, or perhaps just savoring her new, unobstructed view of the world. How clearly I can see things now! She must have been thinking.
I was seeing a bit clearer, too.
In the mirror, Ellie already looked years older to me. She reached out.
I let go of the tuft of hair, allowing it to swoop silently to the floor. I maneuvered my hands around and under the smocks until they found my daughter’s. I let her grab and hold my pinky fingers and together we looked out into the reflective canvas that could have been a painting, so still and serene were the two subjects centered in the frame. We stayed that way, fingers intertwined, eyes forward, breathing together, in a state of absolute rest, until the hairdresser whispered that she was finished.
“That was fast,” I said, using a complimentary tone.
The stylist, in her best baby voice said, “Now that wasn’t sooo baaaad, was it?”
I was thinking she could speak for herself.
My older daughter went next. She was able to climb up into the chair on her own, while I watched from the waiting area. She didn’t even need the booster seat. She sat up so straight and confident, I almost didn’t recognize her.
After we had paid for the cuts and slid on our jackets, we stepped out into the waiting world. I slid my hand into my coat pocket.
It was at this moment that I spun around on the sidewalk and charged into the salon, kids in tow. Pulling the Zip-lock bag from my jacket pocket I demanded a lock of Ellie’s hair. The stylist, holding a large-bodied broom, looked down regretfully at the multi-colored mound now piled high in the center of the floor.
I was too late.
A growing feeling of fear radiated in my belly as we once again turned toward the exit.
In her car seat, Ellie was more vocal than usual, raising her left hand and making sounds that might have been questions. The empty bag now at rest in my pocket, I did my best to hide my regret.
“Ellie has something in her hand, Daddy,” Sydney said from her booster seat.
Ellie was always picking things up off of floors and putting them into her mouth. Tacks, nails, paper clips, dead spiders, it didn’t really matter the object, if it was on the floor, then it needed to be examined, touched, and tasted. Ellie was discovering the new world.
“What do you have little girl?” I asked quietly, peeling back her tiny fingers. Her palm was exposed now and in her hand was a small tuft of brownish-gold hair.
This time my eyes grew big.
Hands shaking, I gathered the treasure and dropped it into the clear bag before pulling Ellie to me in a long, tender hug.
“Thank you,” I said in a hoarse whisper, “Thank you.”
Through blurred vision I ran to the other side of the van and gave Sydney an equally long embrace to which she responded, “I love you too, Daddy.”
At last, I sat in the driver’s seat of our van and placed the keys in the ignition. I did not start the vehicle but instead, held the bag up in front of me and looked at it in the clear light streaming in through the front windshield. A golden hue seemed to accentuate each strand of hair.
Soon I would start the van, drive home, help the kids out of the car and begin the nightly ritual, fatherly routines that have become so regular now, so natural, like the setting of the sun, the changing of the seasons, the sands through the hourglass.
But for now I sit motionless and try to freeze time, to cement the brushstrokes of this moment, and for a second or two, I think I do. Life stands still. It’s just me, my daughters, the strands of hair. We can stay here forever, in this canvas if we choose.
We make our choice, or at least, I make mine. I will rest for a few seconds more and allow the artist time to finish the masterpiece, time to brush in those final highlights. When the painter finally sets his instruments down, we will rise up and move back out into the rushing world, but be forever changed in this instant, forever branded with this pastel memory, enduring, and much too vivid to ever leave behind.