My partner met my parents for the first time this November. The weekend of good-natured getting-to-know you conversations culminated with a night of take-out Chinese food dinner and scouring stacks of my baby photos. As we wrapped up, my dad asked: “You ready?” I nodded.
“Hey,” I said to my partner. “I’ll be back in 15 minutes. I have to go help my dad shave his back.” My partner’s eyes widened. My dad and I headed for the bathroom.
This routine all came about for a number of reasons. The reason that necessitated this event were clear: my dad is a hairy guy. When I was in eighth grade, he won “Hairiest Guy” on our Royal Caribbean Cruise vacation and happily got up on the pool deck in his Speedo to the fanfare of a full steel drum band. My dad is totally unembarrassed about his full sweater. In fact, when I asked his permission to recount this particular memory from November publicly on this blog, he didn’t want me to miss a detail. He texted:
The back-shaving fell to me because, quite frankly, no one else would do it. My father had asked my mother and she did not dignify him with an answer. He also asked my brother (who lives two blocks away), who retched and impolitely declined. My father finally went to his longtime barber, Vito, whose shop is right in Penn Station. Vito shaved his back to the quick and had him itching and burning for weeks. Even if Vito had done a stellar job, I could tell this was not a job my dad wanted to outsource. In fact, when I suggested he look into salons with this particular expertise in the months between my visits, he demurred.
As a 35-year old woman, I am so used to handing my body over to professionals for plucking, waxing, removing, filing, needling, painting, toning, and massaging that discomfort over something like this would never even occur to me. My dad, on the other hand, is a Baby Boomer male whose complete personal maintenance routine consists of going to the barber every couple of months. That’s it. He doesn’t get mani-pedis or massages or have a personal trainer. Unlike me, he is not used to paying professionals to manhandle him in the name of physical improvement.
And while many kids might be grossed out by shaving their dad’s back, I felt OK about it. Hey, I understand body hair, know how to work a pair of electric clippers, and am not in the least bit squeamish. Even as a kid, I don’t remember being that embarrassed seeing my father onstage grooving to the cadence of the cruise ship band. My father was actually fine with his body – his main desire to shave was to reduce the heat and the puffiness under his shirt – so why shouldn’t I be?
The actual mechanics are pretty boring: I head into the bathroom with my father as he climbs into the tub wearing his gym shorts. For the next quarter of an hour, I am absorbed in an Edward Scissorhands-like trance. Dad accuses me of being willy-nilly in my approach and tells me to divide up his back into quadrants. I shush him and tell him that it feels more haphazard than it is – after all, I have a Ph.D. in Political Science; I know how to approach a problem systematically. After additional squabbling and laughter, we conclude, my dad standing, in a fine layer of his molt. His natural sweater has been reduced to a nice, manageable bristle and he is pleased.
This ritual is strange. I am not ignorant of this fact. But it’s also special. For one, I get to physically help my dad do something he absolutely can’t do for himself. And I get to help him in a way doesn’t make me feel sad – which I imagine may be the feeling I will have when I help my dad do more and more as he ages. Instead of the mortality-reckoning help of diaper-changing or feeding an elderly parent, right now I get to do the slapstick, vanity-motivated help of back-shaving. Hooray! Secondly, my father, along with my mother, has worked for years to provide me with whatever I’ve wanted. He rarely asks me to do anything besides call my brother and my grandmother. The fact that I could do a solid for the dude who paid for my college education and was basically my personal chauffeur for twenty years? Sign me up.
As I left the bathroom that night in November, dusted in a light cloud of tufted down, my mom called me into my parents’ bedroom. “Meredith, what on Earth is he going to think of us?” she asked, referring to my partner. “He’s going to think we’re fucking crazy people!” We laughed.
As we shared the moment, I suddenly remembered a conversation my partner and I had earlier that day – wandering around the Upper West Side of Manhattan – talking about our families and our childhoods, excited to be getting to know one another on that deeper level.
“I don’t think I could ever date anyone that doesn’t have good boundaries with their parents,” I had said. “I’m so glad we both do.”
Did I say that? Uh-oh.
“Are we fucking crazy people?” I ask after we stop laughing. My mom puts her head in her hands.
“Well, at least he knows what he’s signing up for,” she says.
She’s right. Say what you will about the back-shaving, but it’s not a compromise I make to please my father. It genuinely makes me happy. In general, I don’t do anything I don’t want to do when it comes to my family. I lead my own life – a life that is neither isolated from nor codependent on my parents; a life that occasionally involves shaving my father’s back. Every family’s got their things – where boundaries are porous and love looks a little quirky.
“All set?” my partner asks me as I enter into my childhood room. The room is still painted an awful lavender. He is lying on the pull-out couch, surrounded by my old theater posters and high school photographs, watching reruns on the newly-installed TV.
“Yeah… Was that weird for you?” I offered.
“Nah, it’s fine with me,” he smiled and paused. “Well, as long as I don’t have to do it.”
Meredith lives in San Francisco.
Image: cave painting of a woolly mammoth from Rouffignac cave in France