Through Thick and Thin

By Elizabeth Hatley

Cosmetology school was my contingency plan. While my friends went off to universities, I stayed behind, having no idea what I wanted to do with my life. After a couple of false starts at the community college, I spoke with someone I admired who was in the cosmetology program, and since I had always loved make-up and hair, decided to apply. I was accepted, and began to anticipate a glamorous future in the beauty industry.

Money was tight, and I lived at home with my parents. On nights and weekends, I worked in a dress boutique which gave me some income, but tuition, books, uniforms, a car payment and insurance ate it up. There were days when my lunch was briny cup-of-soup from the school vending machines, days I drove the thirty-mile trip to and from school on gas fumes praying to make it, days I counted my pennies for the toll booths I had to pass through in both directions. But, I stayed focused on my goal.

In school, I learned to roll a perm in record time, I knew the seven stages of color development, and I could do wonders with a teasing comb in an era when big hair was the rave. A year later, I passed the state boards, becoming a licensed cosmetologist.

For two years, I worked hard at my craft, first as an apprentice in a well-established salon, and later, renting my own chair while building up clientele. I was on my feet all day, up to my elbows in the shampoo bowl, my back aching from leaning to one side. I ruined many an outfit with permanent hair-color stains, and the noxious smell of bleach and chemicals made me crave fresh air. This wasn’t the life of glamour I imagined. I missed mental stimulation, and re-enrolled in college, letting my cosmetology license lapse, regretting the years I felt I’d wasted.

I had one client, however, who wouldn’t let me retire, a hanger-on, loyal for over twenty-five years. My father hadn’t been to the barber in all that time. I’d threatened to shave his head, and I bought him gift certificates for haircuts. I’d given him do-it-yourself hair-cutting tools, and I’d even given him bad haircuts, but that didn’t matter. “The difference between a good and a bad haircut,” he’d say, “is about two weeks.”

My father would wait months between haircuts. I moved to a city sixty miles away, and later, six-hundred miles away, and it wasn’t always easy to get home. When we reunited, my guilt was measured by the length of his hair. At various times, I’d tell him he looked like a poet, an artist, an old hippie. He didn’t care. He was patient, content to wait, a man set in his ways.

Perhaps he waited because I knew his head and hair so well. I knew to watch for the cowlick at the back of his head where the hair popped up when I cut too close, and to watch out for the moles on his scalp. Thinning on top, with an established comb-over, I knew not to cut the crown too short. Try as I might to raise his part, the next time it would be right back where he wanted it. Ruddy-skinned and red-faced, “weather-beaten,” my mother once called him, I knew where he was scarred from all the skin cancer surgeries. I knew where to be gentle.

I’d set up my station in the garage, laying my tools upon the washing machine – scissors, hot water, razor, comb and towel. I’d get a chair from the kitchen table, and carrying it out the door, say, “time to raise your ears.” It was a very old joke, but one I learned from him.

I’d tuck in his collar and wrap a towel around his neck. He had shrunk over the years, and slouched down, and I’d have to ask him to sit up straight, like asking a child. I’d wet his hair by dipping the comb in a glass of water, cold by then, and he’d shiver and complain. “They have hot running water at the barber shop,” I’d say, this bantering part of our ritual.

We passed the time talking, covering many topics over the years – family and friends, faith, college and career advice, discussions about his health, my mother’s failing health, our neighbors’ health, the healthcare system in general. We talked about church politics, local, national and world politics. We were “solving the world’s problems,” he liked to say.

“One haircut at a time,” I’d reply.

I’d square his neckline and thin out the sides where it grew in thick. Cutting closely around his ear, I’d warn, “don’t move,” as if any false movement might result in blood. I’d been using that one for many years, but he would smile all the same. I’d shave his neck, cut the tufts that grew from his ears, and trim his bushy eyebrows. “No one is going to recognize you,” I’d say, removing the towel.

Without looking me in the eye, he’d thank me in humble appreciation. He would pick up the broom and a dust pan, and sweep up the hair, a bit lighter after his cut, spryer, good until the next time…and the next. I gave my father his last haircut the day before he died.

I didn’t always want to cut his hair, and I’m sorry to admit there were times I resented the duty, but looking back, I’m glad my father insisted on waiting. Perhaps he had the foresight to know something I couldn’t yet appreciate – the power in human touch, of being present for one another, of giving someone your undivided attention. It turns out the year I spent in beauty school did have purpose. While my skills as a cosmetologist dwindled, my relationship with my father flourished, in fifteen minute increments every few months over twenty-five years.

About this writer

  • Elizabeth Hatley

    Elizabeth Hatley

    took the zigzagged path to becoming a writer, first as a cosmetologist, then a florist, a flight attendant, a substitute teacher and a volunteer. Her first published essay appeared in Sasee in March of 2006.

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3 Responses to “Through Thick and Thin”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    This is a tender story which brought smiles. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Helen Miller says:

    I enjoyed this article so much! You captured this simple act of service and caring for another so beautifully and have reminded me of how such acts of kindness ultimately reward the giver.

  3. Una Martone says:

    What a lovely story about such a simple act that so many of us take for granted or rush through. Imagine a world in which all hair cuts were given with such love!

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