Earn This (Part 1)

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I know this sounds cheesy, but my mom is my favourite person in the world. I’ve gone from looking up to her, to seeing her as a life companion on whom I can always rely for love and support. She raised me on her own in our small-town Kansas bungalow, all while having a successful career as our village barber. Through her strong personality, grit and talent, my mom was able to gain the respect of even the most conservative hick in this white-bread community, all while having wild hair, wearing high heels and leather jackets, and having plenty of tattoos and piercings. She’s the rad biker rock n’ roll mom that everyone loves.

When I was a girl, me and friends would go hang out at my mom’s shop after school. We would sit on the red stools by the front window, eating the lollipops my mom kept for her young clients, teasing each other. It was never hard for my mom to convince one of us to get our hair cut on those afternoons, especially on those warm summer days. Although she operated a “barber shop,” mom was in the habit of giving us any kind of haircut was desired, from pop-diva layers to princess blowouts, along with bobs, pageboys and pixies. Whatever she did, we always left that shop feeling like a million bucks.

But there came a time where things weren’t so great between my mother and me. After high school, I got a scholarship to go to a fancy beauty school in LA, but instead of accepting, I followed my then-fiancé to NYU after he proposed to me. Even though she tried to hide it and accept my choices, I knew that deep down my mom was furious and deeply disappointed in me. As much as she strived to be an unconditionally loving parent, I knew that she believed that I was meant to follow in her footsteps.

And she had a point: ever since those afternoons in her shop and even before, I had loved everything involving hairstyling. I’d worked in her shop for a couple summers as my first job, I did all my friends’ hair for graduation, and I even practiced on myself by cutting and styling my own hair for the better part of high school. Hair was my love.

Alas, I was young and naïve. I followed my fiancé, thinking he was the man of my life. After a couple months of continuous arguments and of my feeling unfulfilled in New York, we called off the engagement and I packed my bags. It was with my head hung down that I moved back into my mom’s home. I was ashamed at my decisions, and unsure what to do next.

Fortunately, my mom was as kind and open as ever. She welcomed me back with no judgement or expectations, allowing me the time and space to settle back in. Still, despite all her warmth, I knew that a divide had grown between us.

For the first couple months, I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I looked around for odds jobs in order to make some money, but had no luck in finding steady employment. I helped my mom around the shop a little bit, but didn’t ask for any money, since she was letting me stay with her rent free. During my free time, I looked into postsecondary studies, but none of them particularly interested me. Cosmetics reminded me too much of my past mistakes, and as much as I liked working with hair, I didn’t feel confident enough to go to a hairstyling academy. As for university studies… well, I’d never really had the passion or discipline for that kind of stuff.

As I was perusing career colleges online one night, my mom came into the study, two mugs of tea in hand.

“Thought you might like a nightcap,” she said, placing a steaming cup on the desk. It smelled faintly of whiskey.

“Thanks,” I replied. “I’ll head to bed soon.” I suddenly felt the urge to open up. “I’m just… trying to figure out what to do with my life.”

“Aw sweetie,” my mom exhaled, leaning down to give me a hug. “You’ve got your whole life for that. There’s no rush to make any decision. You can stay here as long as you want. It’s been so nice to have you back these past weeks.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, my eyes welling up. “I just… I didn’t expect it to be like this. To be so hard!” I broke down crying.

“Here, here. It’s ok. There’s no shame in being afraid and confused. When I had you, I was so young and inexperienced. I didn’t know the first thing about raising a child, especially on my own!! But I loved you such, you were my reason my figuring things out and getting my life together. And it didn’t matter how much people stared or made comments about me, because I knew that I had you.”

Her words touched me, and made me realize how much my mom loved me. After that night, I spent every single day in the shop with her, lending a helping hand, learning hairstyling and haircutting from her, and enjoying her company.

It was during this time that it became clear to me that the barbershop was the place for me, and it wasn’t just because of my mom. If anything, it was one specific day.

We were just cleaning stuff up in the afternoon, when a young woman just about my age came in. Her hair was a bright crimson red, the kind that was clearly dyed, with long dark roots.

“Good afternoon,” my mom said cheerfully, “how can we help you today?”

“Hi!” The young woman replied eagerly, “I’m looking to get rid of this colour, I’m tired of it and I feel like it’s time for a change in my life. Though I know it’s getting late, and I see you guys are cleaning up here, so-”

“No worries!” interjected my mom. “I do have to run out for some errands real quick, but my daughter Andie would be happy to help you, right sweetie?”

Having my mom put me on the spot like that took me aback, but I responded “For sure! I can take you,” and ushered the young woman to my barber chair.

“Thanks!” She said, taking a seat. My mom began making her way out. I looked at the girl’s hair. The dyed parts were dry and quite damaged. It made sense that she would want to get rid of it and just start afresh with healthy hair. I began thinking about what kind of style would suit my client best, and then proceeded to consult with her. Since we were going to have to cut everything above the overgrown roots, I recommend a short, textured pixie cut whose tapered sides and back would fade into a longer top part that she would be able to style in many different ways. It wasn’t at all the kind of style my mom usually did in this shop, but it was something I was eager to try, and so was my client.

I got my scissors out, and proceeded to remove the bulk of her hair. Red locks tumbled to the floor in masses as I chopped chunk after chunk. After this, I picked up my pair of clippers and began sculpting the sides and back of my client’s head into a fade that went from stubble to a #3, and that then blended seamlessly into the hair at her crown.

Then, I used my thinning shears and haircutting techniques I had seen online to create a textured crop that my client would be able to shape and style in multiple ways, such as side-swept or spiky. Once this was done, I put pomade into her hair and showed her how to style her hair herself. She was beaming from ear to ear, which made me all the happier too. It had been a treat to transform someone’s appearance so radically. She paid and left.

Not soon after, my mom came back from her errands while I was cleaning up the last of the crimson clippings.

“How did it go?” She asked.

“Really well! I gave her a short crop and she loved it. I think I’m really starting to enjoy this haircutting business!”

“That’s great, sweetie!” My mom seemed overjoyed to hear me say that I loved doing the job that she had made her life out of. “I knew you could do me proud. You’re a natural at this, just like me.”

That night, I stayed up late looking for haircutting jobs around town. As much as I loved my mom and working with her, she wasn’t the best teacher when it came to giving instructions and directions. I knew that if I wanted to learn about this job and make it my career, I’d have to cut my teeth in as many different situations and scenarios as possible, not just my mom’s old-school barbershop. Besides, I knew that she didn’t have the money to pay me, and so I didn’t want to inconvenience her by staying at the shop.

While it was slim pickings in terms of haircutting jobs around town, I eventually came upon a posting from the nearby military base, looking for a barber. It wasn’t a glamorous position, but it would do for a first gig. The experience would be nice, but the money was going to be even nicer. I wanted to show to my mom that I could be independent and provide for myself, and so the sooner I could afford to move out on my own, the better.

I applied that very night, and a couple weeks later a tall man in a military uniform came to my mom’s shop, asking to speak to me. He said I was hired, and would start at the beginning of next month. He also explained what the position would entail: mostly induction cuts, but I would also be serving the higher-ups, which meant doing a variety of military hairstyles. All the while, my mom looked at me with pride. Once the man left, she got up from her front desk.

“You know, one day, if you really want it,” she began, “this here shop could be yours. It’s not the salon of the stars, but it’s honest work. You really get to know your community and earn their trust through cutting their hair.”

I looked back at her. She had a very serious look in her eyes now, the kind that one gets when they’re being honest and opening up.

“I… honestly, I think I would love that. This shop means so much to me, and I would be honoured to keep it going. After what happened in New York… I think I might just settle for this small-town life.”

I caught myself by surprise saying this, but it was true. Since I’d been back in town, I’d realized just how much I loved my town, with its local shops, tight-knit community, and general atmosphere of warmth and welcome. It was such a contrast from the overwhelming bustle of the big cities.

And haircutting brought me joy. Seeing that lady leave being so happy with that short crop I gave her, it had made me happy too. I could see myself doing this for a long time.

“Take a seat,” my mom said solemnly, “if you’re going to work for the army, we’ve got to get you ready.”

“But mom- I’m not going into the army. I don’t need a haircut to cut hair there!”

“If you want to run my shop one day, you’ve got to prove that you have what it takes, and part of that is learning about haircuts through experiencing them yourself. A great barber is dedicated to their craft, and a sharp haircut is an ideal way to show that dedication.”

I suppose I could use a haircut right about now. My auburn hair hung limply past my shoulders, having not been cut since I’d been back. I slowly took a seat in my mom’s chair. She put a cape over me, and then brushed out my hair, sectioning it into ponytails. Then, she lopped them off a large pair of shears, one after the other.

“Mom!” I gasped.

“It’s ok,” she said, “I’m going to give you something nice. I wouldn’t let my own daughter leave my shop with a bad haircut!”

She kept snipping away, cutting my hair into a short crop similar to the one I had given to that young woman, except that this one was less textured and more old-fashioned. She faded my back and sides with a clipper-over comb technique, and then she defined my hairline with a small pair of clippers. I saw that my ears were now prominent. They didn’t stick out, but they were just highly visible with no strands of hair to cover them. The short hair also brought out my eyes and freckles.

With her small clippers, my mom created a new parting line for my hair on the right side of my crown. She then used a straight razor and shaving cream to shave the back of my neck and below my sideburns. When she undid my cape, I had a short and stylish old-fashioned crop. While it didn’t have any of the feminine softness, it defined my facial features in a way that brought out my own femininity. I hadn’t had hair this short in years, and so I felt like a completely different person, but I kind of liked it. It was cool, stylish, and definitely made me look like someone involved in barbering.

I was playing with my new hairstyle when my mom took a seat in my barber chair and said: “Now my turn,”

“Wait, what?” I asked, confused.

“You’ve got to practice your barbering skills before you get to the base. Give me a flat top with shaved sides. You can do the top in the length you think is best, but it should be under an inch.”

I reluctantly got up. “You sure?” I asked. My mom currently wore her hair in a simple ponytail that kept it out of her face when she worked. She’d had a multitude of styles over the years, such as every colour imaginable, a sidecut, and a variety of pixies. But still, a flat top was an extreme change.

“Yes,” she answered. “I want you to show me what you’ve got. You’ve got the passion for this craft, but passion is not enough. You need drive. Do you have what it takes, to keep pushing even when the going gets tough? Since you’re going to be working on an army base, you will need to have drive. Don’t let those suits push you around; you’re better than any bs they throw your way. This here is just a little test. Now, give your mom a nice short crop.”

“Alright,” I answered. “I suppose it’s my job to make my customers happy, even when the customer’s my own mom!”

“I’ve had short hair before,” She retorted. “Before you were born, I used to keep it buzzed. Had a Chelsea cut for a while at one point, too. It grows back. So why not play around with it? If you stick to this, you’ll get what I’m saying at some point. You’ll get that same urge.”

“If you say so,” I said as I caped her and untied her hair. It was just like my mom to play these kinds of games with me. She’d taught me how to bike by driving me further and further away from home, each time challenging me to get back on my own. I know saying it that way makes it sound abusive, but it never came off that way. There was warmth and kindness. Whenever it got to be too much, and I got scared or started crying, she’d comfort me and drop the whole thing. But once I was consoled, the challenge resumed, and I’d always end up wanting to impress my mom, and that desire led to me succeeding in the challenge.

I decided that this time would be no different. I grabbed my pair of clippers, took off their guard, and got to work shearing my mom’s nape. Auburn hair fell to the floor, leaving a grayish stubble. I then moved to her left ear, shaving the hair down around it. The right side followed. My mom was left with an uneven, shapeless mass on her crown, which I quickly attacked with my clippers, though this time with a #2 guard attached. The hair here was left marginally longer than the hair on the rest of her head.

I returned my attention to her nape and sides, applying lather from the old-school machine to them with a large brush. All of a sudden, my mom’s right hand flashed out from under the cape, holding a mahogany straight razor.

“Here, use this.” She said. “You can keep it. It’s time you had one of your own.”

I couldn’t believe it. It was my mom’s personal straight razor! I was pretty sure it was a hand-me-down from her own father, who I’d never had the chance to meet. “Mom, it’s too much. Keep it.”

“No, we’re passing this down in the family. Besides, it’s rude to turn down a gift. Now, finish this up. We don’t want the foam to dry.”

I accepted the razor, and immediately put it to use against my mom’s own scalp. I made methodic passes, wiping the foam and shaved stubble off the blade with a towel I lay across my mom’s right shoulder. The grayish stubble soon gave way to smooth skin. I finished off the look with some lotion and aftershave, and made a couple last passes with the razor to make sure the top was perfectly straight.

After I un-caped her, my mom took a good look at my work through the mirror. It was hard to gauge what she was thinking. After what felt like an interminable amount of time, she finally got up and gave me a big hug.

“Aw, sweetie. I always knew you had the makings of an amazing barber. This is perfect.”

We left the shop with our shorn hair, both feeling happy, confident and assured that whatever the future would bring us, we would face it together.

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