Dad's crooked fingers, bashed into awkward angles by years of rugby, and now dripping with a healthy dollop of saliva, arc towards my morning forehead, aiming to smear my wispy bangs into a greasy, artificial part.
I can see it coming but I’m temporarily frozen to stop it, the connection between mind and body misfiring like the loose battery cable on the ’72 Corolla my mum taught me to drive a stick in. I haven’t yet shaken off the cobwebs of a long night’s sleep and my dream-like paralysis now threatens to leave me caked with the coagulated gel of dad’s greasy Irish breakfast.
My eyes widen and brows arch - involuntary reflexes not requiring active thought – but I take brief comfort knowing that at least my brain is online. Can I now spark the synapses to act on command, to duck my head or raise my arm – some movement, any movement to spare my curls the smearing?
I grit my teeth, hold my breath, and struggle to react in time.
It's my own fault really. Dad was always notoriously early for church, as if God Himself was handing out prizes to the first 10 arrivals. If dad had his way, he’d have arrived at the end of the previous mass and fought upstream as the celebrants filed down the front steps, bobbing and weaving his way to his preferred pew.
My priorities were a bit different.
Sleep. Glorious sleep. I'd wring every possible drop of doze from Saturday night's slumber, 'til dad slid my groggy bones off the side of the bed, down the stairs, and into the idling car. The ride to church would be spent re-acclimating myself to consciousness, and then I’d stumble alongside him into the nave, and collapse in a heap into the pew next to super-celebrant himself.
Dad would then ready himself to receive the Spirit.
Monthly bulletin? Check.
Kneeler cushion intact and hinge in proper working order? Check. Check.
All systems go...bring on the healing!
Of course, his attention would now turn to me. He'd look me up and down like he was inspecting some piece of modern art that he only understood enough to know that he didn’t like what he saw.
Admittedly, I was a Sunday morning sight to disappoint. Somehow yesterday’s clothes would make it onto by body during my rushed morning stupor, and whatever sweaty stench I wore to bed the night before would now have been reactivated. Short of dragging me to the sacristy and stealing an alter boy’s robe, dad’s options for salvaging some presentibility out of his third-born were limited.
But there was always the hair.
The one aspect of my physical appearance that distinguished me from my siblings was my curly mane. The sandy-brown coils that thicketed my scalp like some impenetrable jungle, would be twisted by many hours prone to pillow into a shaggy, lopsided muddle that was surely distracting God from blessing dad and the rest of the quickly-arriving congregation. Dad’s embarrassment was too much to take.
The smearing takes place in slow motion. How is it that an act that I can’t move quickly enough to prevent appears to take place in slow motion? I don’t know, perhaps it’s yet another of the Church’s great mysteries. Or perhaps I’m subconsciously allowing it to happen as some act of self-penance. Regardless, his warped hand arrives, and the sopping, gritty smudge slides across my hairline, transforming my front tufts of hair into a sculpture that can only be cured with several rounds of vigorous shampooing, prior to which I will cringingly glimpse myself in the mirror amazed at how my petrified tresses now resemble dad’s crooked rugby fingers.
There are few things I can look back on in my childhood that disgust me as much my dad’s sloppy spit styling my Sunday morning tresses. I can still feel it cooling and hardening into some kind of bacterial snarl, distracting me from whatever pious perspectives the priest is sputtering from his perch upon the pulpit.
And yet, I can’t help but laugh, for that mental mark remains long after, and represents far more than a crusty coif.
It’s a reminder of a childhood blessed with my dad’s goofy brand of fun – the kind that only an Irishman who doesn’t take himself seriously can provide. It’s a gift I’m still learning to cultivate in myself, and one that I hope I can pass on to my own son.
And as I sit on this beach, out here in nature where my God exists, I bounce Julian on my knee and notice how the cool
Cape Cod breeze easily splits his wispy infant hair into a natural part. Curls are just starting to form on the longer locks - thin tresses that creep towards his neck a little further each day. Maybe I too once had a part, I think, before my curls took hold.
Suddenly the morning’s wind picks up for a moment, gathering up from behind us and buffeting our backs. I notice that Julian’s part is now gone, and his hair sticks straight forward like stiffened fingers all pointing out towards the bay.
I smile a grin drenched with memories, slide my thumb down the length of my tongue, and as Julian stares at me in frozen wonder, I reach out in slow motion.