The last time I shaved off my beard was about 17 years ago, while my daughter was away for the summer visiting her grandparents. Kathryn was around five years old. When I picked her and her mother up at the airport, Kathryn wouldn’t speak to me. She hid behind her mother, staring at me doubtfully, not sure I could be trusted. On the drive home I could see her in my mirror, glowering at me. 

Before she’d left, we’d talked about putting some shelving in her closet, a job I’d completed while she was away. Showing her what I’d done seemed to convince her I really was the same person who took her to the airport a month earlier. She relaxed her guard and began chattering away. It’s a good story, one that’s become part of the family repertoire, brought out around the dinner table at various gatherings.

I don’t recall exactly when I let my beard grow for the first time, but the mustache began the day after I graduated from high school. The beard has come and gone in many configurations over the years. Once, while still living at home, I walked into the kitchen after removing the chin part of my beard. My mother looked at me and said, “There’s something different, but I can’t tell what it is.” The mustache has come off only once—and that only for the time it took to grow back. 

The purpose of the beard—it’s primary function—is not so much to support a style or make a statement (well, a long time ago it was) but to eliminate the need for shaving. It’s an activity that takes time in the morning and is irritating to the skin. It’s easier just to let alone, trimming it as necessary. Eventually, though, it becomes a fixture, a part of one’s identity. Taking it off this time required a lot of deliberation. Over the past several years I’d been keeping it short clipping it once a week. But over the past few months I’d use the razor around the edges, whittling it down to get used to the idea. Then one day off came the sides. After two or three weeks, off came the chin part. That’s the worst part—very difficult to shave closely without irritation.

I’ve always like the term “graybeard” as a reference to an old man. It’s appropriate and respectful. So I didn’t shave it off to mask my aging. There are plenty of other signs of that. I owe it all to whimsy and caprice. And I’m going to stick with it—for a while, anyway. 

Kathryn is still uncertain.