by Abby Margolis Newman
Two days ago, my 11-year-old son, Henry, got his first buzz cut, and I cried my eyes out about it. "It's just hair," my husband said in an attempt to console me, "it'll grow back." I know this, and yet I feel devastated by this loss. What's going on here?
The youngest of three brothers, Henry has never liked his hair. First of all, it's red, and in the post-"South Park" era of denigrating so-called "Gingers," it's already tough in 21st-century America to be red-haired and therefore different. Secondly, his hair has always been wavy - I remember the beautiful red curls he had as a baby, the same curls which are now enshrined in a clear Ziploc bag clipped into his baby book, a remnant of his first haircut. (I'm afraid to look at them for fear it'll send me right over the edge again.) Henry has always wished for straight hair, darker skin, fewer freckles. When you're a tween, the last thing you want is to stand out in any way.
Occasionally, when expressing his annoyance about his hair acting uncooperatively, he'd ask about getting a buzz cut (a few of his friends had already done it). I always said no, then veered to another topic. To me, buzz cuts (the "crew cuts" of my youth) have such strong negative connotations: they're militaristic. They make me think of Nazis, of mean ex-marines (think Chris Cooper in "American Beauty"), of bullies. The thought of Henry, my sweet-natured baby, with a buzz cut was just too jarring - like cognitive dissonance, it just felt wrong.
Then in June, for the second year in a row, Henry was voted onto the baseball "All-Stars" team in our California town. My friend Lisa called me a few days ago and said, "I didn't want you to be blindsided by this news, so I thought I'd warn you: all the boys on the team are getting buzz cuts tomorrow. I guess it's a 'team spirit' thing." And sure enough, Henry came home from practice that day, bursting with the buzz-cut news, begging me to say yes. Even though I knew the inevitable conclusion to this story, I said I'd need to think about it.
How could I say no? But at the same time, I was completely panicked at the idea. My older two boys are 15 and 16 - so Henry's the only one I have left who willingly snuggles with me on the couch, letting me run my fingers through his amazingly gorgeous and soft red hair. How could I just give that up? I realize this may sound like a twisted maternal take on the Biblical story of Samson (the guy who lost all his strength when his hair was cut) - as if I feared his childhood would float away with his cropped locks, but... yeah. That's exactly how I felt.
Needless to say, I said yes. One of the baseball Coach/Dads had a "Free All-Stars Buzz Cut" session at his house the following afternoon. I brought Henry over, but didn't have the nerve to actually stay and watch. Afterwards, I heard from my friend Karen, the wife of the Coach/Dad/Barber, that Henry's hair was so thick and there was so much of it, it fell like a furious snowstorm around his shoulders.
Later that night, as I was getting Henry ready for bed and I looked at his shorn head, I felt my throat tighten with emotion. Henry asked what was wrong, and - I simply couldn't help it - the tears began to flow. I mumbled something about this feeling like a rite of passage of some kind (but a pathway to what? manhood? how ridiculous was I being?). Henry asked what that meant, and I answered, "I just feel like you're getting older." He hugged me tightly to him and said, "I'll always be your baby." This only made me cry harder.
I made some lame joke about how he takes after me - he complains sometimes that he cries too easily - and, still clutching me to him, he said, "I'm with you. I'm with you." I think I misinterpreted this: he probably was referring to the crying thing, but I took it to mean that he was with me, that he was my little boy and always would be. I thought my heart would burst. I tried to pull myself together by wiping my eyes and telling him, perhaps unconvincingly, "It's just a change... I'll get used to it." To which he replied, "I'm not changing yet. It's just a haircut." He kept hugging me. "It's just a haircut."
Maybe it is just a haircut, but I look at him now and - though he is still my beautiful little guy - something is different, something intangible. Someone at the baseball game last night said he looks more like my husband, which is OK, as my husband is a fine-looking specimen. But I remember those stunning, soft red locks, the loss of which I mourn. And I remember that first haircut: Two-year-old Henry sitting in his high chair, me distracting him with a popsicle, my mom wielding the hair scissors, the satiny curls falling to the floor. I feel like Henry has crossed some bridge now, over which there is no return, and that the only direction it leads is away from us. And this simple truth makes it much more than just a haircut.