IN a small town a reputation can be born and solidified through the local hardware store. A person may be labeled a "fixer" or a "replacer," depending on what nuts, bolts, or duct tape he or she buys.
On occasion, I go to our hardware store to replace small appliances beyond fixing, the last being a rice cooker I burned out when I dreamily poured water and rice without first putting in the basket that separates the water from the electric coil. The sun had been shining through a spray of water into the blood-red snapdragons in the garden; I was distracted.
One Saturday, determined to cut my children's hair, I purchased some hair clippers on sale from the appliance shelves. I smiled politely as the clerk warned me that cutting hair was not as easy as the box suggested. Taken in by the photo of the serene mother and son on the side of the box, I was convinced that by nightfall my adolescent son, Dylan, would look as good as the two-dimensional boy in the photo.
At home, I wrapped my son in towels. I started slowly, taking one small trip up the back of his head. The shears were indeed remarkable. The path I'd just carved from Dylan's neck to his crown looked as bare and smooth as new concrete. He wanted a trim. I had given him his first shave. "How does it look?" he asked.
Just like in the movies, I'd started to sweat. And as I had so many times reassured my children, not to mention myself, I said, "It's not quite what I expected, but I'm sure we'll be OK."
There was no gluing, taping, or otherwise affixing the pile of hair now on the floor back to his head. This was something I'd only read about in books. How, in this modern day, could this be happening to me? Finally, I put my hands on his shoulders and told him that the back of his head looked drastically different than the front. I'd made a huge mistake.
Dylan has an exceptionally forgiving nature. This is a good trait to have in a firstborn, always at the mercy of well-intentioned "first-time" parents. He sat in silence as I finished the trim. I began to cry. I couldn't help it.
"I can't believe," I said, "that I did this to someone I love." Another few minutes of silence passed before Dylan said, "At least I won't have to wash my hair for a while."
This let loose a fresh bout of weeping from me. "It could be years," I said between sobs. Sometimes it's hard to be so easily forgiven. The next day I humbly returned the shears to the store.
It was seven months before Dylan had enough hair to have a trim. To the local barber's credit, he said nothing about the obvious source of my son's erratic thatch of hair - at least not to my face.
Now, with a fresh crop of thick, neatly trimmed blonde hair, my son delights in telling this story. We have what we call a "story box" next to the round oak table where we eat, a silver box made in Norway many years ago by my Uncle Ole. Occasionally we spend an evening telling the stories inspired by the items in the box.
THE items in the box are small: An olive shell picked from a deserted winter beach tells the story of a chance meeting. A small ceramic bear represents a special friendship of mine. Last week my son, finally at the point where he could once again spare a small lock of hair, put a piece of tape with several blond hairs affixed into the box.
I knew he was anxious to tell this tale. My children's favorite stories usually involve some error on my part, some time when I've been illuminated in the shadows of imperfection. It is humbling to see my actions in their stories. I winced a bit last night as my son pulled his symbolic piece of hair from the box.
He is compassionate in the telling, though, and somehow in the laughter there is a healing, not from the direct incident of the haircut, but from all the times I've wanted to do something just right for my children and have failed.
Innocence is lost not only on the young, but too, on the parent who expects far more of himself or herself than could ever humanly be delivered.
The story of the haircut cements my children's belief in my fallibility. It will give us more nights of entertainment than I care to imagine. The story demonstrates the trait of kindness. And I'm quite sure it's given the people at the hardware store and the barber shop more than just a "good topic for conversation."