Sunday, December 10, 2017

        My father, Ralph Fletcher, passed away on November 25, 2017. In honor of his death I wanted to share this piece of writing.

                       The First Shave is the Closest

                                                                                                by Ralph Fletcher

        Girls know it when they get their first period. As a boy I was watching TV with my family when my sister suddenly stood up, blushing, and ran to the bathroom with my mother close behind. The bathroom door was shut for some time. When it opened, there was an expression on my sister’s face I had never seen before. She had been gone from the living room less than an hour, but during that time an utter transformation had taken place. My mother treated her with new respect, and even my father seemed uneasy in her presence.
That evening, and for several evenings thereafter, she and my mother held long, secret talks behind closed bedroom doors. This sudden female complicity left me with only one conclusion. Somehow, while I was watching Walt Disney on the tube, my sister had become a woman.
My transformation from boyhood to manhood was, in contrast, agonizing in its slowness. Even the slow swelling of my sister’s breasts seemed violent compared with the almost imperceptible deepening of my voice and elongation of my bones.
Still, slow as they might be, my physical changes were terribly important to me. Unfortunately they never built to a sufficient peak for my father to get involved the way my mother had with my sister. My sister and I were just two years apart, but while Mom was discussing moon secrets with Elaine, Dad kept his distance from me. This worried me. I wasn’t sure if I was growing up right or not.
Awkwardly, I grew through the early teens. In my sixteenth year a thin, hairy growth sprouted on my face; I was delighted when my father began to show interest in this sorry excuse for a beard. I began eagerly awaiting the day when I would get my first shave, though I was uncertain how this rite of passage would take place. Would my father give me a little booklet to read, as he had done with the Facts of Life? Or would it be something he would have to show me personally, maybe one of the few remaining rituals still physically passed down from father to son?
One spring morning my father motioned me into his bathroom and shut the door. His large presence filled the tiny room.
“I’ll shave first,” he told me. “You watch me and then you’ll have your turn.”
He needn’t have said that: I’d watched my father shave dozens of times before. The process had never failed to amaze me. To watch my father shave was to witness an almost mystical metamorphosis from beast to beauty. He began sleepy-eyed, hair in disarray, looking like a bear emerging from winter-long hibernation. Then he went to work. Shaving was a slow, leisurely process, but when my father finished his face gleamed like polished stone. He began with an exacting pre-shave ritual: washing his hands, lathering his face, rinsing it, and then covering it over with shaving cream. This makeshift Santa Claus had my father's voice.
“Now you let it sit for a minute so the shaving cream can go to work softening your whiskers,” he said. “You don’t want to rush a good shave.”
He shaved with long vertical strokes, eyes narrowed in concentration, mouth screwed up in a dazzling array of expressions—anger, pensiveness, surprise—to accommodate the razor. After finishing, he applied another coat of shaving cream and shaved a second time, this time with lateral strokes. Not a single beard stalk survived this checkerboard shave. Finally, he rinsed off and applied after-shave lotion.
My turn. Mine were awkward strokes; it felt like I was discovering the shape of my face for the first time. My father’s practiced hand had not left a scratch on his skin—mine was bleeding in several places by the time I had finished. He showed me how to plaster the nicks with bits of tissue paper.
I ended the ritual by splashing a generous amount of after-shave lotion on my face, and experienced for the first time the surprising sting of alcohol on my tender skin.
I have shaved many thousands of times since that first shave, and my father and I had a healthy share of disagreements. But I still follow the shaving ritual exactly as he first taught it to me.
Nowadays I often run into guys who brag that their fancy new razors give them the closest shaves they’ve ever had. As far as I’m concerned, that's just a lot of talk.
       The first shave is the closest. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.


  1. My sympathy in the loss of your father. Loved the writing about teenage transformation!

  2. Thanks for sharing your memories. Sorry for your loss.

  3. Hi Mr. Fletcher,
    I am Faren, Chinese name is Xiangjun Lu. I am a Chinese teacher in a high school in Minnesota. For my literacy master’s program, we have to response to a writer’s blog. I read your Boy writers before, and I really liked its truth and straight-forwardness. That is why I choose your blog postings to respond to.
    I am an animal lover. I feed birds, and I live beside the Mississippi river. Reading your posts, I felt the resonance. Some of your poems and pictures are about river, birds, and seasons. They are so vivid, and I seem to hear the water flowing. I was born in a modem city (Shanghai,) and moved to the U.S. seven years ago. My pervious life was very much “city-like.” Neon lights and sky scrapers filled my sights. The busy city life makes me nervous, anxious and intense. In an exotic city like Shanghai, everyone tries their best to make money; people talk about money, time management, and wining competitions. The words Green, Relaxing and calm equal waste time. It was such a luxury for me to have a few minutes to do meditation let alone enjoy the nature. I have lots of reasons to like the U.S.: the freedom of speech, or the democratic voting system. Among all of them, what I like the most is the space I have and the nature I am able to close to. The slow pace of lifestyle makes me be able to breath, to listen, and to enjoy the pleasure that the nature brings me. I love the singing of the birds, the colors of the tree, and the sounds of water flowing. Your poems washed away my anxiety and brought me peace.
    Among all your blog poems, the “Memory Loss” caught my sight. I think about me, my son, and my mother. I am wondering how my son treats me and how I treat my mother when the day finally come that I lose memories and my mother lost hers. I hope I may have the memories of loved ones’ names and still be able to recognize their faces. I hope my mom still knows that it is me that calls her; although she has been lying in bed for seven years and can’t remember how to play her piano. When the day comes to me that “I stop in the middle of the bridge, disoriented, and wandering, should I go back or keep going?” I hope my son may beside me and holds my hand.
    Mr. Fletcher, there are three questions in my mind after reading your blog. They are:
    a. Why do you choose nature to describe people’s lives?
    b. The poem “Weeds” is so playful and full of life. What do the weeds symbolize in real life?
    c. What triggered you to write Memory Loss?

  4. Ralph, I am so sorry for your loss. Writing is cathartic. You've captured a lasting beautiful moment with your father and that typical right of passage. Thanks for sharing. I believe when we share these intimate moments in our lives, we make connections that spread.

  5. So sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece with us.

  6. A bookend for The Last Kiss. Love these moments that you share. Hugs to you.

  7. My condolences on the loss of your dear father. I’m sure this post was a tough one for you to write, yet I bet it was a bit comforting as well. Writing does that, doesn’t it? You have taught me that in so many ways. I feel privileged to be able to share in this memory with you. Thank you.

  8. Thanks for giving us a vivid glimpse of your father's care and your admiration for him. I hope writing is offering small bits of solace as you mourn his loss.

  9. Ralph, I am sorry for your loss. I lost my father this year too. Your writing sparks wonderful memories of watching my dad shave. Thank you.

  10. Ralph, the simplicity of this piece is powerful. Your voice is in my head - along with images of my own father shaving as I watch. Thanks for sharing -

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