Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Barbershop as a Microcosm

To my blog readers:
I wrote this series of vignettes about my father's decline, due to Alzheimer's Disease, in February 2018, just three weeks after his entry into a nursing home, when I began processing January's major changes in my parents' lives.  My visits with my father to Larry's Barbershop provided a perfect setting, because my experience there had been limited to about an hour every five or six weeks for nearly two years when I took my father there for a haircut.  I could wrap my mind around these small segments of time. Now, three months later, I know that I will continue working through new changes in new ways, but I have chosen to share these with you.
The first time I went to Larry's, I was charmed. This place could have come right out of Norman Rockwell. In fact, prints of Rockwell's barbershop paintings hung in the shop, along with the typical Saratoga Springs horse scenes and other memorabilia. Just one mid-sized room with two barber chairs and an assortment of seating space, the barbershop clearly had once been a parlor or living room. It had a marble fireplace with a carved mantle, and an old-fashioned appeal with the older barber and the younger.

(My father, Irv, and Larry, 2016)
The next time I had the perfect angle to get a picture of my father in the chair with Larry behind him. Unobtrusively, I took a photo with my phone and texted it to Bill, Thomas, and Meredith.  I began to read the newspaper I had brought with me, but had one ear on the conversation. My father talked with Larry about the outdoors. Larry had been a downhill skier, and my father, as always, told how he loved to ski at Bromley in late winter when the trails faced the warmth of the spring sun. I often wondered about this. We had never gone as a family to Bromley.  Still, it was a pleasant conversation as other men came in and sat down to wait their turn for their haircuts.

My father regaled Larry with hiking stories, bringing me in. “That's my daughter, Virginia,” he would
say. “She's a 46er.” Then Larry looked my way and we chatted a bit as I described hiking the peaks
first as a teenager with my father, and later completing the 46 Adirondack peaks with my own daughter.

(Many times Irv's stories went way back to his rural childhood in Ontario, Canada)

It took me a while to get around to printing the photo of my father in the barbershop. I made two
copies and gave him one. My mother immediately put it on the refrigerator. I decided to drop
in at the barbershop that afternoon on my way back to Albany, and give the other copy to Larry. Larry and Mike saw me come in. Larry had a questioning expression at seeing me by myself. I handed him the envelope with the photo in it. “It's a picture,” I said with a smile, and turned to leave. The next time my father and I went to the barbershop, the photo was secured in the corner of Larry's large shop mirror.

(Irv in the Adirondack High Peaks, 1978)
I began to notice the friendly conversation of the other men. Most people knew one another, or at least they knew Larry and Mike. Sports, horse racing, news, and other topics ran the gamut. Often my
father's and Larry's conversations included me.  Larry liked to ask me about Albany or talk about things happening there. I got the sense that he had little interest in spending much time in Albany, but used his trips there as a common point of interest with me.

My father became less patient with waiting. One day, I searched the pile of magazines in the shop.
Larry turned and said pleasantly, “You won't find many women's magazines in there.”
“Oh that's okay,” I said. “I was looking for something for him,” gesturing toward my father. I found a magazine that had some scenic pictures, and managed to entertain my father with them to keep his interest during the wait.

It dawned on me that my father might not be giving Larry or Mike enough money. He had gotten
stingy about tipping at restaurants, and I didn't want him shorting these nice guys. I stopped in on my
way home, again drawing attention with my solo appearance. These were working men, and I wanted
to be quick, so I just said, as I walked in, “Is my father paying you enough?” Larry said yes. I turned
to Mike who had cut my father's hair that day, “And what about a tip? Did he tip you?” “I'm pretty sure he did,” Mike said. “Okay, good,” I said. But from then on, I watched as my father pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. I stood up, put my glasses on, and moved in closer, so that I could see the denominations of the bills. My father seemed unaware of my scrutiny, but Larry and Mike knew. As soon as I saw that the bill and tip were properly attended to, I stepped away and got our coats.
(Our last Adirondack hike, 88th birthday, Balm of Gilead, 2012)

By now, my father had a boot on his right foot from ongoing podiatric issues. Larry began opening the door for us as we left so that I could guide my father.  I made sure he didn't miss a step or trip with the clumsy footwear.


(Irv's WWII travels became an increasingly larger part of his memory)

My father was out of sorts when I said we were going for his haircut. “I don't need a haircut,” he said. “It can wait.”   The barber shop was busy and barely any empty seats remained.  I quietly told Larry, “We might not make it today.” My father took two steps in, turned around, and in an angry voice said, “Hell! Can't we get out of this damned place?” I began to shepherd him out, turned to look at Larry, with a sheepish grin. Both Larry and Mike had expressions of surprised amusement. 
(Irv swimming at Lake Luzerne, 2016, age 92)

My father became very stooped, and still wore the boot on his foot.  The weather had turned hot, and he and Larry talked about swimming. I mentioned that I had recently taken my father swimming at Lake Luzerne and that he was an amazing swimmer. Larry liked these tales and they boosted my father's spirits. I told about his rhythmic breathing and stride. I said, “Even now, when there are so many things he can't do, he can get in the water, and it all comes back -- the same slow stride and the breathing, like he could swim for miles.”

I picked my father up at the house. He hadn't shaved and was looking a little rough. In the
barber chair, after the haircut, Larry took a razor out of his drawer and gave my father a quick shave. Nothing was said. I appreciated that Larry cleaned him up in such a discreet way. I told my mother about this kindness.
(Thoroughbred racing is a big part of a Saratoga summer!)

Another busy day at the shop. I was pushing it, getting my father to agree to stay with so many people waiting. My mother thought he was desperate for a haircut and I didn't want to fail at my job. I
struggled to find a magazine that would keep his interest, finally locating one with travel photos. We went cover-to-cover looking at the pictures, and then started over again, since my father wouldn't remember that he had seen the same pictures already.  I said, “Look at that! You've been there.”  He would add a comment and we continued on. With the repetition of the pictures, I repeated the same words with the same enthusiasm, trying to draw him in over and over.  Now and then, my father would say with some exasperation, “Isn't it my turn yet?”  “Almost, just a couple more people to go,” I answered. Men came into the shop, commented on how busy it was, and Larry said,  “That's because it's Tuesday.”  And then I remembered, it was the dark day at the track. Everyone had time on this day to get things done, like a haircut.

(Irv picks a colored-leaf bouquet for my mother when we walk at Moreau State Park, age 90)

The shop was boisterous. The men were talking about sports. A few mild swear words sprinkled their and Mike's conversation. Larry looked at me. “I'm sorry,” he said. “Sometimes they get excited and don't think about how they talk.”  “Oh no!” I said, “it's okay.” After all, I was the interloper in this masculine scene.

(My parents celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary, April 2017)
Christmas rolled around. I convinced my father to go to the barbershop for his Christmas haircut. The
shop was packed. I counted how many people were ahead of us. Mike had a heavily-bearded man in his chair. The man told how he used to be Santa Claus for his children and grandchildren, who were all grown up now. I watched Mike trim the man's beard. It looked good, and I thought of my husband, Bill, who struggled to trim his large beard evenly.  Mike told a funny story about his five-year-old son, who thought he was helping Santa Claus by making a list of all the naughty children in his kindergarten class. 

When my father's turn came to sit in Larry's chair, we, too, talked about Christmas.  Larry asked my father about his Christmas plans and my father talked about having everyone to the house and my mother doing all the cooking.  Larry looked at me, sensing this might not be quite accurate. I said, below my father's hearing, “We'll come get my parents and bring them to our house. They come with us.”  Larry nodded.

One of the men who came through the door was a good friend of my father's. “Tom!” I said. I rarely
saw Tom and he was such a nice man. “Virginia?” Tom's questioning tone reminded me that my presence in the barbershop might seem a little unusual. “Yes! And here's my father,” I said, pointing to his back in the chair. Apparently, Tom knew everyone else, too, as the volume rose with pleasant greetings. 

Tom took his hat off. Three inches of white hair stood straight up. I glanced at Larry, laughed, and said, “Tom needs a haircut!” When my father got out of the chair, he was excited to see Tom, and Christmas filled the crowded barbershop.  Larry escorted us to the door, put one arm around me and the other around my father.  He said to my father, “Make sure you come and see me in the new year.”


Many thanks to Larry, whose kind manner and congenial barbershop made taking my father for a haircut my favorite task over two years.