The sharp, shiny scissors glinted in the afternoon sun, as my father-in-law raised them to my son’s head. I watched in horror as he slowly snipped a golden tendril, curly from the humidity and heat of the day, cutting away Jakey’s virgin hair, unmarred and untouched by us for the three years of his life. As the guests of the party gathered round to watch us unveil our son, removing layers of his hair that had curtained his youthful face, Jakey sat obediently on a stool, clutching a charity box, and putting in the bills and coins that adults generously passed his way.
We had been growing our son’s hair for three years, in accordance with an ancient Jewish tradition, and were finally celebrating this milestone event in his life, the day when he would be ushered into religion, expected to be mature enough to handle the building blocks of practice. The haircut would symbolize the transition from baby-hood to being a young, capable boy, and we celebrated this marked event by hiring a DJ, serving gourmet burgers and other barbecue delicacies, and having a lame clown/balloonist/face painter, whose best graphic was a heart with a smiley-face in it.
It was the hottest Sunday of the spring, with temperatures reaching into the nineties, and I was grateful for the last-minute canopied tents my husband had ordered, protecting us from the unusually warm weather. “Tell them not to cut so much,” I whispered to my husband, my voice faltering. “I’m not ready for this.” And the irony is, I was so tired of Jakey looking like a girl, and had been recently frustrated with the mad-scientist frizz of hair he had been sporting lately, proving to be untamable and as unruly as his personality could sometimes be. I should have been relieved to see it all go, tumbling onto the grass while some strands were rescued and placed in a basket, others pocketed by the guests who had cut them.
It was like I was meeting my son for the first time. It was like this was his real birth, as opposed to the messy, exhaustive one at Englewood Hospital three years earlier, when they handed me a tired and hungry bundle, saying, “Congrats! It’s a boy!” But then, all I knew of him was that he liked to kick and move in the middle of the night, and that one of his kidneys was filled with fluid. And at this birth, at this haircut, I know that he likes to go on a piggy-back ride down the stairs, that he can be entertained for hours by Matchbox cars, and that when I express any feelings of sadness or frustration, he is the first to run over, to beseech me with, “Mommy, I wuv you.”
In recent months, my son developed a terrible case of shyness, refusing to say hi to our household help whom he has known for close two years, avoiding his grandparents, and blatantly ignoring adult friends of ours, who crouch down at his level to whisper a jubilant, “hello!” And he had a crutch, an aid to his sudden display of social apprehension. His hair. He could hide behind it, safely shrouded by its fluffy mess, and if he couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see him. But I battled him, bribing him with jellybeans until he learned to sometimes look adults in the eye and give a friendly response, instead of turning abruptly in the way he knew would make his hair cloak his eyes, his cheeks, and lips. This was the next step of the battle. I was taking away his security.
Jakey sat in his archetypal position, perching cautiously on a stool, with his head tipped to one side, hair swept over his face. But the hair was getting shorter, and we could see the tops of his eyes, his eyebrows, and his gorgeously long lashes. It was my turn to cut, and as the scissors were handed to me, their cold metal pressing into the palm of my sweating hand, I clasped them, bracing myself for the impending task. A little snip. No big deal. My eyes welled up with tears of sadness as I cut off my favorite curl from the underside of his hair, a perfect spiral, one I had always hoped my own straight hair would miraculously develop. This was the tendril I often played with, twisted, looped my finger around, when he would lay his head in my lap, or when we would nestle together on the couch. I placed the detached strand in a Ziploc bag, its final resting place, coffin of youth and all things childhood. And when my eyes cleared up, and the guests ceased cutting, I stood back to look at my son, to see him as I had never seen so clearly.
Georgie, the Hungarian hairdresser, showed up around a half-hour later, and finished the job, lopping of the uneven strands that poked out in all directions. She ran her fingers through his hair, massaging in some styling gel and spiking up the tips. My husband topped it off with a Lightning Mcqueen Kippah. He carried Jakey over to the bathroom mirror, and proudly stood him on the countertop, so he could inspect himself and his new look for the first time. “Do you like your new haircut?” my husband asked, grasping his shoulders, firmly, and smoothing back an errant strand. And there it was. The self-conscious, head-turning attempt. Trying to hide under his hair, but the hair was gone. Jakey was forced, for the first time, to face the world, to acknowledge himself. After he blinked for a moment, registering his surprise, his lips curled up into a tiny smirk, and his eyes lit up. He nodded, slowly, and his hair stood still.