Memoir For My Father’s Hair

If the Freudian theory of transference is to be trusted, then my father’s hair was the hair of God, or at least the hair of the hunkier disciples pictured in my Sunday school reader. His hair was dense and impenetrable, layered as a crow’s feathers. In his mod 30’s my father let his bangs sweep like a black wing over one eye. He wore turtlenecks and tweed. He kept a pouch of cherry pipe tobacco hidden from us in the top drawer of his desk. In those earthier days, he grew coastlines of hair: Argentinas of sideburns, a Crete of a thick moustache.

Before my father died, his hair had changed. It had softened like felt. Its coloring had entered its last winter. Gray had once overtaken black, and then gray became white: my father’s hair was the diffused color of a cataract, of milk making clouds in water.  

In my family, we were more than the sum of our vanities, and yet. My mother modeled swimsuits for department store ads. My sister won beauty contests. My father went to hair stylists rather than barbers, and insisted on the same for me. For many years, he kept a scalp stimulator in the soap dish of his shower. I learned to not use it because of the hair I left tangled between its blue plastic spikes. “The average male can lose up to 300 hairs a day,” my mother reassured, whose father’s Hippocratic baldness she feared I had inherited. My father used select shampoos that poured dark and thin like cough medicine. Bathroom drawers rattled with product: a Brylcreem tube, a can of Superhold hairspray. Vitalis. Grecian Formula 44. Protein 29.  Mousse. Gel. Just For Men. He stored wooden club brushes in a velvet-lined box. He owned blow driers with as many attachments as a vacuum cleaner.

I have long envied my father’s hair for its constancy. He remained handsome. It was a matter of unspoken family pride. I had never known him with anything less than a celebrity’s wealth of hair, Pancho Gonzales hair, Joe Namath hair, James Brolin hair, Blake Kerrington hair. My father, of the unmoveable hair. What must it be like to swim, to shower, to sweat, to remove a ski cap, to boldly address a headwind as one crosses campus on one’s ten-speed with a hairline as certain as the flat of an axe? He knew, not me. Outdoors I am as testy as a windsock and worry that if a strong breeze is met just so, my bangs will not serrate like my father’s did or ruffle at the topmost layer but lift like a tablecloth or part like cheap drapery to reveal bare contour of high, pale forehead. Better to look down or over as I walk. Better to greet the world dodgy and askance. I angle into the wind triply annoyed—at the wind, at my hair, at my pettiness.

I am a father now and have two sons and a daughter.

“Where did they get that hair?” people asked.

The two oldest children started as blondes with heaps of curls. Our youngest child was blonde, but his opaque mop was wild and swirling—rough seas on the surface of his tempestuous head. He was an Ardelle, we said, through and through, and sometimes when I gave him his bath and shampoo, he let me comb his hair until it was smooth as frosting, with a part on the left and the bangs at a blasé slant across his forehead, like his grandfather once wore. I wrapped his towel around him and held his face against mine in front of the mirror.

“Who’s this hip cat?” I'd ask.

He'd ham it up, ape a face, but never take his eyes off his fine self.

Bird Report

Grinnell Road. A cold day, a blue sky, a yellow meadow, a hawk fighting for balance on the tightrope of a telephone line, its tail feathers fanned and swaying like a witch’s broom.