The cruelest thing a parent can do to a child is to have his hair cut. At least, this is how my son makes me feel when I implore, cajole, and all but haul him bodily to the barbershop.
I realize, at root, that I should not be mustering the troops for a full frontal assault over hair, especially as I recall all too well the Beatles era when parents and children fought pitched battles over the length of their sons' hair out of fear that a shaggy mane would lead to moral dissolution. Even now, 40 years later, my mother still says the country started to go downhill "when the Beatles came over."
Be that as it may, I don't insist on a trip to the barber out of any considerations having to do with propriety or defending the American way of life against the malicious influences of British rockers. The problem with Anton's hair is a practical one. He has thick, curly, libertarian locks with more than any boy's fair share of cowlicks. When his hair gets long, it takes on a life of its own in a way only Medusa would understand.
No matter how doggedly he brushes his hair back after his evening shower, a good night's sleep throws it into uncombable disarray, an impenetrable thicket reminiscent of a garden that has been allowed to return to meadow. Anton does not have bad hair days. He has catastrophic hair days.
All of this occasionally plunges him into a slough of despondency. "I wish I had straight hair," he said one day. "Like Elias."
Elias is Anton's bosom buddy. His hair is straight and black, each and every fiber a stout bristle, a stalwart soldier that knows its place as it stands obediently in ranks among its compatriots. Elias also happens to be Cambodian. "Asians have straight hair," I told Anton.
"It's not fair," he said.
"I don't think it's a matter of fairness," I explained. "It's just the way things are."
"Then I wish I was Asian."
A subsequent visit to the barbershop (under duress) did nothing to heighten my son's acceptance of the mop he was born with.
When the man finished his formidable task of bushwhacking his way through Anton's primal coiffure, I handed him the $8 the shop charges for a child's cut. "That will be $10," he meekly informed me as the sweat continued to bead on his forehead and he shuffled his feet amid a pile of freshly shorn curls the size of onion rings.
When I was a child, I had what my mother called "wavy hair." This was somewhere between curly and straight. It was thick and relatively difficult to comb, so my mom bought something called "hair trainer." This concoction had the consistency of molasses and was designed, I presume, to teach a child's hair to behave. I remember her brushing this goop in as I hovered on the threshold before leaving for school. She'd hold my chin in one hand and rake away with the other, until I looked as if I were wearing a newly cast helmet. "Mom, don't!" I'd say as I squirmed.
But she was nothing if not resolute. "I like brushing your hair," she'd coo. "It makes me feel good."
I never understood that cryptic statement until I had kids of my own. Though all other morning preparations be completed – washing, dressing, teeth cleaned – if my son's hair is not brushed or combed, I feel vaguely unfulfilled. A child's heading off to school with an ungroomed head is like not having milk in the house – it is cause for alarm.
About a week ago Anton tried to rush out the door before I could grab the brush, but once again I was too fast for him. I took his chin in my left hand while I pushed the brush through with my right. He squirmed and protested.
"There are a lot of knots," I told him. "Hold still."
"Can't I get my hair straightened?" he begged.
"Like Henry Kissinger?"
"Don't worry about it. Just hold still."
What amazes me is that my robust son eventually settles down and complies. Yes, it makes me feel good to brush his hair, but I think it makes him feel good, too, although he would never admit it.
The other day, on a whim, I showed Anton my copy of "Meet the Beatles," the album that introduced the four Liverpudlians to the world. I smiled as I pointed out their haircuts – modest in retrospect (what was all the fuss?) but revolutionary at the time.
"Why is their hair so straight?" asked Anton as he tugged at his cowlicks and curls.
"They had it cut."
And off we went to the barbershop – without a squawk this time, thanks to the Fab Four, whose influence never seems to wane.
I must remember to tell my mother.