The first time Tim ever went to get his hair cut, it was with my father. The two of them – Dad then in his early sixties, Tim a toddler – together climbed the stairs to the old-fashioned barber shop on Walden Street in Concord Center, just as fathers and grandfathers and sons have probably been doing together since the nineteenth century in this particular spot or one just like it. For all I know, Henry David Thoreau himself got his hair cut at Palmucci’s Barber Shop, from one of the predecessors of Dad’s barber.And for the next ten years or so, the tradition continued. Every month or two, Dad would pick Tim up and the two of them would head to the barber shop.
It was the kind of rose-hued tradition that age-old memories are made of….except that when Tim turned twelve, he admitted that, as kindly as his grandfather’s barber always was and as much fun as it was to have this special grandfather/grandson outing which had gone on for as long as Tim could remember, he wasn’t crazy about how his hair looked after a cut by Raffaele.
I suppose it goes without saying that I was a little bit disappointed by Tim’s truth-telling. As a family tradition, it had been such a particularly pleasing and picturesque one. How could a mother not get misty-eyed at the sight of her father and her son trekking off together for dual haircuts?
But at the same time, it’s never an entirely bad thing when your twelve-year-old expresses his preferences dispassionately and honestly, and another part of me knew the importance of respecting what Tim had to say. It was nothing against his grandfather or his grandfather’s barber, he emphasized; he just wanted to get his hair cut somewhere else.
So I started taking him for haircuts elsewhere, at a barber shop with only a couple of years of history (and surely no Transcendentalists among its past clientele), where his hair is cut by young women whose name badges say Shayla or Ashlee.
But somewhere around that same time, probably during football season while they were both watching a lot of NFL games on TV along with the barrage of advertising that inevitably accompanies the broadcasts, Tim and his grandfather both developed a hankering for fried chicken from KFC.
There’s no fast food in Carlisle, of course. But the two of them made a plan for a Friday evening when Dad would pick Tim up around dinnertime and they’d go to a neighboring town to share a bucket of drumsticks and wings.
But when Tim told me about the plan, I reminded him that he already had a commitment that evening; his good friend Austin was coming for a sleepover.
No problem, my father said generously; he’d bring both boys to KFC.
And then last weekend, with football season once again under way, Tim and his grandfather decided it was time for another pilgrimage to KFC. This time Tim didn’t even have a preexisting commitment to his friend; but still Dad said “Let Austin know I’ll pick you both up at 5:30.”
Thus was born a new tradition, and I had to smile on Friday as I saw the boys hopping into the car with Dad – and returning two hours later stinking of deep-fried grease and sipping the last of their appalling 24-ounce Cokes -- because it drove home so vividly the message that traditions are what you make of them. When Tim was an infant, I might have dreamed of him heading off to the barber shop with his grandfather someday, the same way I might have pictured sledding excursions or Christmas Eve church services or Tim’s first road race: the kind of tradition I imagined I would treasure.
But real life intervenes with daydreams sometimes. Even the words “KFC” make me a little nauseated, but the fact that Tim and his grandfather found their own way to a new tradition still makes me smile. Yes, it’s smelly and greasy – but it’s theirs. A special tradition. Not the one I would have picked, but the one they picked. And so now I dream of this new one continuing for many years to come.