For many years I have resisted writing about this. In case you don’t know what this photo is of, it’s an antique barber strop. A strop was, or is used to sharpen a straight razor used to shave men’s beards. It used to be made of leather, with a canvas or thick leather cover or side used to polish, wipe, or buff the razor after sharpening.
My grandfather was a barber. He came to America from Russia and opened a barber shop in downtown Los Angeles in the 1920’s. His two sons, my father and my uncle followed in his footsteps, both going to cosmetology school. My uncle owned a women’s hair salon in Santa Monica for over 40 years. My dad had a bad back, and although he enjoyed it, chose the military instead as his career.
My father came from a broken home. This was back in the day (the 1920’s) when divorce was truly unheard of and considered a scandal. My grandfather was a womanizer, a gambler, and liked to drink. My grandmother left him, taking my uncle with her. That meant that my dad, who was a little boy, stayed with my grandfather and slept on a cot in the back of the barber shop. I don’t know what he ate or who cooked. When my grandfather brought his women in, what happened to my dad? He had a scar on his arm and one on his face which happened when he was a boy and I believe his father was responsible for them. My grandmother wasn’t a good mother – she shouldn’t have split up her sons like that. It permanently damaged my father.
He kept a razor strop like the one in the photo – it may even have been his father’s – always hanging on a hook on the back of his bathroom door for as long as I knew him. He didn’t use it for razors. When my oldest brother was born, the doctors knew he wasn’t normal. They told my parents to put him in an institution. (This was 1948.) My mother refused. She took him home and showered him with love and attention, and my brother always went to regular school, struggling along with her help. He eventually graduated and learned to drive, attended junior college, has held many jobs, knows how to use computers, has his own condo, loves to read, and is very intelligent, more than many people I know. But my father being a military man could never accept that his son wasn’t perfect. He resented the attention my mother gave to him. I remember the horrible names my dad called my brother; the fights; when my father would drink it got very bad. I was so little but I remember my father chasing my brother around our house with the razor strop and beating him. I recall him screaming at him to get out of the house. I could not have been more than 5 or 6 years old.
There is so much more to say about this. Perhaps (I have often felt) some of this explains my desire for submission. Many times, my mother tells me, she thought about leaving, but times were so different then. As my father aged, he mellowed somewhat. And of course eventually my brother was able to move out on his own, which helped matters. I will never forget the day when my father called my brother and me into the living room where he was watching TV by himself and said, with tears in his eyes, “I want you to know that I always loved you.”
My brother still can’t forgive him. It was too little, too late. I understand. I do forgive my dad, though. I understand him. He was damaged. He actually was a very emotionally weak man. Still, I love him and miss him. But there are things I am, and always will be haunted by. You can’t change your past, but you can try to understand it and become a better person by not repeating the same mistakes your parents made.