year, my wife Leora and I went to New Zealand for a month's vacation,
a trip of such duration that we easily settled into new routines.
Commutes, meetings, and social commitments gave way to hikes, beach
picnics, and scenic drives. Less than one week into our sojourn,
I decided to use the time away to buck still another daily routine:
With the exception of an unfortunate-looking goatee grown during
my junior year of college, I had lived most of my adult life as
a clean-shaven man. In the twelve years since that first ill-fated
facial hair experiment, I had probably spent as much money on disposable
razors as some people spend on their first car.
are renowned for their adventurous spirit -- for jumping off bridges
with a rubber band attached to their ankles and bodysurfing head-first
through whitewater rapids -- and I reasoned that the adrenaline-charged
atmosphere of New Zealand might be just the place to give growing
a beard one more post-college try. To top it off, I was about as
far from home as one could get and still be on this planet, meaning
that consequences of failure were nil. If I didn't like the beard
I could shave it off and look like my passport photo again before
boarding the plane home. If Leora didn't like it, that was her problem.
I was the only authorized driver of our rental car.
weeks after stuffing my razor into the deepest recesses of my luggage,
I found myself sporting a fairly respectable beard. Nary a patch
of skin was visible as my whiskers completed their journey from
my sideburns to my chin, and the hair above my upper lip connected
confidently to the hair below. Even Leora approved, opining that
the beard made me look rugged, an adjective not typically employed
to describe a man who eschews the fluorescent-lit aisles of Duane
Reade to buy his moisturizer at Kiehl's.
home in New York, getting used to the beard took as long as getting
over my jet lag, and I still didn't recognize my own reflection
in a mirror for a few days after our vacation ended. While going
through hundreds of pictures from our month away, I thought, more
than once, what the hell is that guy with the beard doing with his
arm around my wife?
morning as I peered into the fridge contemplating breakfast, I found
myself stroking my beard. The act was subconscious, as if the beard
itself wanted to help me decide, and it wasn't long before the mere
touch of a thumb and forefinger to my whiskered chin helped me adjudicate
other ordinary choices. Paper or plastic? Venti or grande? Unlimited-use
or pay-per-ride MetroCard? Let's ask the beard.
I stopped shaving, I hadn't anticipated that wisdom -- or dare I
say maturity -- would be a fringe benefit. Nevertheless, I had joined
the esteemed fraternity of Abraham Lincoln, Moses, and Obi Wan Kenobi,
heroes to any child of the suburbs, synagogue, and the seventies.
I was thirty-three years old. Didn't Jesus, bearded and Jewish just
like me, do some of his best work at my age?
do you like it?"
was the first question I asked my mother after arriving in Boston
for a quick visit a month later. She paused before answering, but
the strained look on her face and her stiff body language said it
all. If it was possible to hug someone close and keep him at arm's
length, my mother had figured it out.
she said. "You look like your father."
father. Ever since my parents had divorced two years ago, my mother
had been very careful in how she described the man who had been
her husband for over three decades. His affair had been such a betrayal
that she could not bring herself to use names that kept him close.
He wasn't Neil anymore or even Dad. Instead, he was "your father."
When parents divorce in their golden years, their children are the
ones who get custody.
years, people had pointed out that I had my father's nose, his smile,
and up until recently I had exercised enough to keep my inherited
predisposition for a potbelly at bay. (If not for the miracles of
modern prescription medication, I'd probably have his hairline,
too.) How could I have thought, even subconsciously, that my beard
would defy Mendel's laws of genetics? Suddenly I didn't feel wiser.
I felt guilty. There may have been some strange Oedipal complex
at play that fueled my guilt, but all I remembered from my college
courses was that Freud had a beard.
divorce had upended my mother's world, and she had landed on her
feet in a new condo, the consolation prize for over thirty years
of marriage, thanks for playing. There was our dining table, still
a place to share dinners, even if our dinners would be smaller by
one person from now on. Two floral-print couches, placed at right
angles to each other, remained as a place to watch rented movies.
Still, there were hints that something was not right. A tall wooden
armoire, too big to fit in my mother's new bedroom, stood at attention
against a wall in the living room, as if it was so unsure about
its new surroundings that it couldn't relax for even a second.
of us mentioned the beard again for the rest of my visit. Instead,
I focused my energy in the way a concerned parent might when moving
his child into a first apartment out of college. I bought her a
gallon of emergency water, a flashlight with spare batteries, and
a small fire extinguisher for the kitchen. When my mother wasn't
looking I took two twenty-dollar bills from my wallet and surreptitiously
slipped them in my mother's purse. It was the kind of thing my parents
used to do for me: cash stuffed into a palm after a hug at the airport,
a check mailed to me for no good reason, other than because they
thought I needed the extra help. My beard wasn't white, but playing
Santa Claus made me feel a little better.
my parents divorced when I was a child, splitting time between two
households would have felt normal. But coming late in my life, it
was hard to get used to the concept of truncating a visit with one
parent to spend time with the other. Thankfully, I had plenty of
time to think about it as I searched for my father's building in
a garden-style apartment complex in Waltham, Massachusetts, thirty
minutes from my mother's condo, and light years away from the life
he once had with her. I circled endlessly on roads named to suggest
the woods torn down to make way for the residences that stood in
their stead: Brown Bear Road turned into Grizzly Bear Lane, which
led to Kodiak Drive, which inexplicably intersected with Kodiak
Way. Had my father not been waiting for me outside his unit, I might
have circled the woods forever, although part of me might have been
more comfortable doing that, nervous as I was to see his apartment
for the first time since the divorce.
PAGE 1 2
version for easy reading
material is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission|