Saturday, January 5, 2008

Hair locks

The family Bibles are old; their leather bindings disintegrate in our hands as we pull them from the shelves. We fan the gold-gilded pages; instantly, the room fills with the smell of dank basements and ancient lives. My brother Craig and I must make decisions about these family treasures, but first, we hope, we will uncover a bit of our history.

In the pages of three different Bibles, we discover dried violets, ferns and pansies, a marriage certificate, a family tree, obituaries, and a business card for a funeral home. It would be nice, we fantasize, to find money, some old savings tucked away and forgotten. But we also know enough about our family's past to realize that these weighty, elaborate tomes were purchased over a century ago during a time of optimism and richesse. In the ensuing years, our families endured wars and poverty, years when, of necessity, any secret cache would have been spent.

For one of the Bibles, there are no marks at all, no names written inside, no family tree, no records of births or deaths. The edition is particularly fine and in excellent condition for its age. We aren't even sure which side of the family it's from--Mom's? Dad's? Doggedly, I search for evidence, and I gasp when I find it--it almost looks alive--a lock of hair. Not a soft, wispy, infant lock, but a substantial, mouse-brown tress from some young, vital head. Separated from its owner at a formative age, the hair has remained brown, thick and lustrous. It is curled up in Psalms like a smug, sleeping cat.

To whom does this human remnant belong, and why was it saved? Whoever it was, he or she has long since ceased to exist, and is therefore no longer able to clue us in. I'm curious enough, though, to do a bit of research, and I uncover the traditions of other cultures at first: Jewish, Native American, Hindu, Chinese. Mine is a Protestant, Anglo family, and unfortunately, whatever tress-saving traditions may have existed earlier have not continued. According to a recent article in the Seattle P-I, in the 19th century people used to keep scrapbooks of hair. And according to First Haircut in Wikipedia, in Victorian times, boys had long hair just like girls. A boy's hair wasn't cut short until he was becoming a young man. A lock of his first haircut was saved as a testament to his rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.

Satisfied I have found the clue I'm looking for, I make a speculative leap, deciding the Bible where the lock of hair was found probably belonged to my Uncle Lew Witte, the boy pictured here. I have just a shred of evidence: This photo is the only one in our ancestral family albums where a young boy followed Victorian tradition and kept his hair long. Of course, I'm aware it's wishful thinking to assume I've found both the reason for the lock of hair, and the original owner.

Still, in a broader sense, the mysterious lock has given me a cause for celebration. After all, it would seem, for at least several generations, our family has been finding meaning via the hair on our heads.