You all know that I am magnificently bearded. My father is magnificently bearded. My brother-in-law is scruffily bearded. Every male my children see on my side of the family is bearded. The children think that having a beard is normal, and that’s how it should be, because that’s how it ought to be.
On my mother’s side of the family there is a great paragon of beard. My honored grandfather, who uses his beard to shield his grizzled jowls from cold Andean winds.
My grandfather is a geologist, and has always been a great traveler and explorer. Early in his life he was based out of Lima, and for the past couple of decades has been ensconced in Santiago, Chile. My mother’s stories of her childhood featured heavily Range Rovers, mountain lions, and earthquakes. He’s been all over the world and up and down every mountain in the Americas. Dude is awesome.
And yet his beard is a relatively new thing.
About fifteen years ago he had a heart attack. Within a few months he was back to clambering up mountains, but suddenly he had a big bushy white beard. He was no longer the paragon of clean-shaveness he had been.
I like to talk on beard, I attend beard-growing contests, I promote Movember, I promote a certain mustache wax. Beards mean certain things. I believe men ought to have beards, it gives men a sense of identity in a time and place in which identity is hard to come by.
Grandpa was in junior high and high school in Center Moriches on New York’s Long Island during the war. His mother was a Daughter of the American Revolution (I inherited her research into family history; the book is ten inches thick), and his father a Jew, not what you’d expect in what was then rural Long Island. He played baseball and football. I have it in my head that I own one of his bats from the 40s, although there’s some chance I simply have an old bat I’ve become convinced was his (I grow old).
For some reason I’m not clear about, he was accepted into and was enrolled at the University of Oregon. He got there by hitchhiking across the country in the summer. He met and married a Nebraska gal who had family in Oregon. He graduated and took her to the Rockies, and then to the Andes. Had four kids, rescued a baby mountain lion. You know, the usual. Did business for sixty years, is still working.
Somehow it feels right that my grandfather’s generation would be clean-shaven. The men who built the British century had mutton-chops; the men who built the American century were clean-shaven. They built great engines and flew around the world and kept their hair short. They wore Old Spice. The shaved face was part of their identity, they didn’t have the crisis we do. Today men shave if they have to. If they’re cubicle drones. Men who work for themselves today will grow some sort of facial hair. Back then, if you worked hard, you shaved. (And your pipes had straight stems.)
I’ve seen my grandfather shave with a straight razor. I don’t know if he always did, but I love the association I have with him: straight razor, shaving brush, green bottle of aftershave. As much as I love beard, there’s something wonderfully old-school about the discipline and ritual of an old-fashioned shave. None of this The best a man can get smooth-glide thingamabob with gel and triple-razor action.
It’s about the careful lather, the strop, the rasping careful draw down, the brisk slapping on of aftershave.
This post was not, initially, going to be a paean to dear ol’ grand-dad. It was meant to be a celebration of shaving, brought about by The Art of Shaving‘s new series of commercials, The Brotherhood of Shaving. Check them out. Here’s the first one.
UPDATE: turns out my scruffily bearded brother-in-law has grandpa’s bat. My sister almost threw it out. Thankfully it was saved, and I’ll be claiming it soon.