In the pictures I once painted of my future family, the barber shop was on my husband’s list of responsibilities. Saturday mornings, with the smell of sausage and syrup still lingering in the kitchen, I would wipe our son’s sticky fingers, peck his chubby cheek, and send him off with his daddy. They would return hours later with fresh shape-ups and mischievous grins that hinted at the adventures they’d gotten into without me.
From childhood, I had known the barber shop to be one large man cave. I only showed my face there on occasion. Some days, after a long drive into town, I’d arrive at my grandfather’s shop and find him bent studiously over a head. When he’d look up and find me there, he’d beam with pride. Some evenings, I’d leave his apartment, walk downstairs, and stick my head in the shop’s back door to ask how many heads stood between our family and dinner.
Though the shop was primarily for men, I knew that women could go. At times I’d see a woman in a stylist’s chair, a pair of clippers buzzing off tufts of the short fro framing her face. Other times, a lady seated in the waiting area would watch her young son explain some design he wanted etched into the back of his head. And when there was time, my mother would tilt her head back and sit still as my grandfather’s straight razor glided along the outline of her eyebrows.
Yes, women were welcome in the barber shop. But in my visions of the future, I’d always assumed the trip would be my husband’s responsibility—that is, until I walked past a barber shop on a recent stroll.
In the five years since my grandad’s death, I doubt I’ve passed a barber shop without thinking of him. But that night, as the shop’s open door ushered a familiar fragrance out onto the sidewalk, I could smell him.
I can’t attribute the smell to a specific product. I only know that it transported and comforted me. One moment I was walking down a Maryland street, and the next I was in a New Jersey barber shop as my grandfather’s voice, thick and sweet as honey, called out, “Hey, baaaby.”
Life has a funny way of looking nothing like you imagined. As I considered how much I missed the barber shop smell that reminded me of my grandad, I wondered if, in another life, this knowledge of the power of smell would have changed the picture I painted of my dream husband and son. Surely trips to the barber shop would be a moment of father-son bonding most of the time. Yet on those occasions when I longed for a whiff of nostalgia, I likely would have become the woman seated in the waiting area as a barber’s clippers buzzed along my son’s hairline and memories of my grandfather danced in my head.
After that surprise scent on the sidewalk, making my way home to neither husband nor son, I mourned what used to be in addition to what has never been. And as I attempted to make peace with both love lost and love never grasped, I realized that such grief is universal. Even if some people get closer to attaining certain dreams than others, we are all destined to mourn a past that is no more, a present that lacks someone or something, and a future that will never be.
Multi-faceted mourning must have been a reality for my grandfather, who knew loss on another level. His only son died at an early age. No doubt my grandfather had envisioned what it would be like to watch his boy grow into a young man. Surely he had plans to teach him to drive, to hear him find his voice amid the barber shop banter, and to snap photos of him in a cap and gown. Who knows what smells and moments left my grandfather mourning a past he would never see again and a version of the future he would never behold?
In spite of it all, I know that my grandfather lived a long, vibrant life full of smiles, laughter, and love. Maybe the key to his joy was accepting that mourning the past does not absolve us of the responsibility to show up in the present. Perhaps he also knew it was possible to grieve the future you imagined while still holding out hope for whatever goodness tomorrow may bring.
It is quite the balancing act, navigating the pull between past and future, grief and joy. Only God knows what sights, sounds, and smells lie around the next corner, ready to yank us backward or push us forward. I can only hope that for every whiff of nostalgia, there is an even greater gust of hope.