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When the First Locks Fall to the Floor

The sky has shifted from shimmering blue to fireball orange into shades of glowing indigo. Soft music plays on the radio. My parents' 45th wedding anniversary party is winding down. Guests begin to slip away, leaving behind quiet echoes of laughter and barely-there footprints in the lawn.

Meanwhile, without need of invitations, a second event unfolds. Beneath the crepe-paper streamers that deck the house even in the kitchen, a wispy-haired toddler, who has been dancing with his cousins, is being lifted mid-twirl by his father into a chair. The boy is my son, about to get his long-overdue first haircut. And I am still not sure that I like the idea.

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His hair has gotten too long, I know. Delicate light auburn bangs flirt with his eyelashes. Corkscrew curls bounce over his ears and nestle in the nape of his neck. Even in his train engineer's outfit, his own family could mistake him for a girl.

What was once superfluous has become a distraction: Even I have caught myself seeing the curls before the boy.

But still I let his hair grow, putting off the inevitable for months until the day a special someone could travel to this party and do the honors.

My cousin appears in the kitchen. With a change of attire, she has transformed herself from party goer to haircutter, her workaday self. From a discreetly stashed suitcase with the airport stickers still on it, she slips out her instruments.

Out swirls the big blue cape around the boy. Daddy cheers and helps tuck it into the doughy creases of the child's neck. Granny and Granddaddy step in to watch, the guests of honor now spectators.

Whoooosh! Psssssst! Out pops a stray bottle that hisses as it dampens the shimmering curls, turning them dark and coppery. I gasp, but nobody hears.

Remaining guests gather in the kitchen to watch the transformation. The boy flashes his six-toothed smile at me and taps a foot in rhythm under the cape.

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His daddy, the proud veteran of countless haircuts, stands by to guide the child. He holds his boy's pudgy cheeks gently, to keep his head steady and still.

My cousin pulls out a comb. She strokes the straight wet hair. ``I'm your aunt,'' she tells the little boy without missing a beat. ``I have no brothers or sisters, you know, to give me a little nephew. So I just might declare you my nephew, instead of my cousin.''

She smiles into the fingers of her open, curved hand resting lightly on his neck, the glinting scissors poised over a damp fringe of hair. ``My first little nephew.''

``Don't fill my son's head with inaccuracies and impossibilities,'' I say lightly, stooping close to the floor where I won't see the curls being sheared away. ``You are not his auntie. You are his cousin.'' I take a deep breath and pop up to announce, ``He can call you Cousin Auntie.''

My cousin laughs in consideration of this. Representatives of the family tree murmur their approval.

A guest heading toward the door peeks in at the goings-on. With a quick finger, she swipes a dollop of whipped- cream icing from what remains of the cake. Eyeing its shrinking size and the freezer, she declares, ``Enjoy this while it lasts! It'll never keep!''

Meanwhile, just behind her, with smooth deft motions, Cousin Auntie makes another cut.

I bend down again to scoop up the fine, damp curls as they dance down the cape onto the kitchen floor. The crescents are so wispy that, were it not for their dampness, they'd be as impossible to gather as dust balls.

I will never again be a beaming new mother of whom well-wishers inquire, ``Boy or girl?'' I note with an inward pang. Just over a year ago, he had thick, fuzzy infant's hair that rubbed off in the bassinet from the turning of his head as he watched his musical mobile twirl.

How did he get so musical, I wonder, watching his feet. Is every child this way?

Before I knew it, that first downy hair had grown into curls he liked me to brush: from fuzzy to feathery to curly, and now to the sanctuary of a plastic sandwich bag.

The boy kicks again and smiles at his audience. Cousin Auntie dusts off his neck, then slips off the cape without a flourish. As Cousin Auntie applauds him for his patience, the boy applauds her as if pleased with the results.

A spray of wispy bangs frames a face full of eyes that seem to search for music, for the nearest dance floor. His ears catch every note. The muscles in the nape of his neck throb as he bobs his head in rhythm.

This haircut is exactly right, I realize with a thankful sigh. My son looks exactly like - himself!

As the crescent moon rises in the window, an unseen hand turns up the volume on the kitchen radio. We pinch off bits of today's cake to savor.

Daddy, Mommy, Cousin Auntie, and the boy drift outside. We join the anniversary couple under starlit skies and dance to the beat, beat, beat of the music.

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