By Steve Welling
This is the third of 10 essays chosen to be published in the Deseret News annual Christmas writing contest, “Christmas I Remember Best.”
The Christmas I Remember Best involved a man who gave a most treasured possession to another man who didn’t want it and had no use for it. But it was in the giving and the receiving that they both rejoiced, and were brought together as never before.
The story begins many years ago when my “little brother” Nate and I were attending a Northern California high school. We both wore the general issue school uniform of the time— an old flannel shirt, jeans, boots of one kind or another, and long hair. We all liked long hair. It was the very foundation of coolness at that time.
What’s cool at school isn’t always cool at home, and Mom and Dad’s haircut policy was defined as “above the collar.” We had the best dad ever, honest we did, but along with many of his generation, he associated long hair with ’60s counterculture. It was a symbol of rebellion against everything good that our family tried to live by. Nate and I saw long hair more simply as rebellion against short hair.
If a psychologist subjected Nate and Dad to that word association test, Nate’s immediate response to “long hair” might be “low maintenance” or “cool.” Pretty sure Dad’s would be “Charles Manson.”
That type of perception-polarity was the source of conflict in our home every six weeks or so. At first mention that it was time for haircuts, we would take peaceful evasive action where possible. Soon came the public announcement that we could have our hair cut now by Mom, but further delay would result in Dad giving the haircut. Our suspicion that Dad was some sort of reckless hair assassin was never verified. I would turn myself in at that point. Nate would hold out as long as he could. Nate liked long hair.
Fast forward almost 30 years. It is Christmastime. I find myself driving home to visit my family in Northern California. I always feel comfort from the constants: The redwood trees are still there. The ocean seems unchanged. My parents still live in the same house. And Nate is also there. His hair is now the longest I have ever seen it. It is at least a foot beyond even the lowest collar we could conceive of as children.
The family’s approval rating for Nate’s hair is in the single digits. Like “0.” Over the course of a family meal, each of us took a turn discussing how great he would look in shorter hair. He would “fit in” more. He would look more employable. And, of course, he would look less like a dangerous criminal.
What we didn’t discuss was the perspective from a 47-year-old with a lifetime streak of bad luck. What might long hair mean to a guy who was unemployed, unmarried and living at home? A man who still dreamed young but lived old, who slept more than half of each day to hide from the extreme pain of a debilitating back injury? He had lost so many things. Couldn’t he keep just one thing he wanted? Just one thing that would help him feel like he was still “cool?”
Apparently, that discussion was a private, ongoing one for Nate, until Christmas Day.
On Christmas Day, we gathered in the formal living room, just as we had done so many years ago. Nate came out of his room, almost reluctantly, to join us. He was wearing a flannel shirt that could well have come from our high school years. In an apparent effort to keep the peace, his hair was pulled back in a concealed ponytail.
Ancient, treasured Christmas records spun on an actual turntable. We each claimed our territorial couches, where a few modest gifts lay unwrapped. As we took turns exchanging gifts, Nate’s were thoughtful handmade items from the wood he used to work with — until he exchanged gifts with Dad.
Dad had no idea what Nate was presenting to him. He opened the small, white box, picked up a 12-inch piece of perfectly braided, beautiful hair and stared. Then, father and son embraced, as they hadn’t done for a long time. Mom joined in. There were tears, but not many words.
That was to be Nate’s last Christmas.
My memories of that difficult time in his life include this episode of greatness. A guy down on his luck took the only thing he owned that brought him joy and laid it on the altar as an offering of peace. And that little bit of peace on this little bit of earth will be forever in my mind, The Christmas I Remember Best.
Steve Welling lives in American Fork.