My father, Walter Russell, left this good Earth more than forty-seven years ago; dying suddenly of a heart attack at fifty-four. To me, then sixteen, his death was like an earthquake that shook me to a realization I could barely accept. I am now sixty-three, and despite the passing of years, that night—which I then viewed as so tragic—is still fresh in my memory.
If my words could introduce you to my father, as he stands in my memory, you would see a stocky man about five foot nine; with a ruddy, clean-shaven face, receding silver hair, muscular arms, and big hands. He was a man most at ease hoeing our garden, or casting a fishing line on a still lake; yet he possessed the natural ability to share with anyone he met.
If you were close enough, you might detect the scent of Old Spice cologne if he was dressed for church or a sales meeting; of the whiff of cigarettes—a habit from times when smoking wasn’t considered a vice.
Although his voice was capable of conveying anger, it almost always resonated with kindness or laughter. Those memories complement the faded photo of the two of us, which I kept in my wallet for more than thirty years.
When my mother finally sold our house and moved to an apartment, she was forced to sort through a lifetime of possessions; for she could only keep as many keepsakes as space would allow. After sorting through her closet a few years later, my mom dug out a few articles that she thought I might like to see, if not keep. One of them was my dad’s Gillette electric razor, which she handed to me when I was visiting one day. As I was in a hurry, I barely glanced at it before I kissed mom and headed home.
I didn’t give the razor a second thought until that evening when I was lying across the top of the bed. My now ex-wife and I had almost finished the bedtime tasks associated with my son, eight, and my daughter, four. With unexpected tentativeness, I opened the rectangular case and lifted out the blue and white razor; it felt light and comfortable in my palm. For at least a minute, I truly looked at it; inspecting every detail. As I did, I pushed a red button along one side, which triggered the shaving head to pop open. When I looked inside the recessed compartment, I saw whiskers….my dad’s whiskers. From my consciousness came the tumbling realization that I was looking at a sign—proof—of my father’s life. The whiskers were dark, not grey as I might have imagined; they were of a man not past his prime. As I gazed at them, I could feel—still—the sense of my father’s vigour.
Just then, my son, Evan Walter, came into the bedroom; he was fresh from his bath. “What ya doing?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, distracted, “just looking at my dad’s razor.” I snapped the shaver lid closed as my wife entered the room and stood beside Evan. Seconds passed. I could tell by the tender expression on my wife’s face that she realized that I had just reached back in time and touched my father, and he, me.
“Looks neat,” Evan said as he leaned on his elbows to examine the razor.
“Yeah,” I said, “it does.” With that, I swung my legs off of the bed and walked to our bathroom. I inserted the electric cord into an outlet, and the razor whined back to life.
I hadn’t shaved for two days, but suddenly the urge to do so was irresistible. Moving the razor in circles against my chin, I soon produced a bare patch. A glance at Evan’s face told me that he was mesmerized; dreaming of the day when he, too, would shave.
My wife looked at me, and I at her; with a nod of her head toward Evan, I understood her implied message. I pressed the razor against Evan’s cheek, which he had eagerly offered, and moved it gently back and forth.
“Wow, that was awesome!” exclaimed Evan when I turned off the razor. He touched his face as though to preserve the tingly sensation.
My wife and I felt stirred with emotion. The cycle—from father to son to grandson—felt complete, as though coming full circle. Evan had never met his Grandpa Russell; but we had finally drawn them together in the present moment, to flesh out the realm of stories and photos. Evan smiled all the way to his room that night, and I’m sure that the razor was the last thought on his mind before he drifted off to sleep. I know it was on mine.
How delighted my father would have been to witness that quiet happening between my son and me that night. His face would have broadened into his welcoming smile; and if he could have, he would have touched my shoulder and affectionately tousled Evan’s hair. Was my father a great mover and shaker in the vast scheme of life? No, at least by some persons’ standards; but as the man who fathered me and gave so freely of his time and enthusiasm, he was even more—irreplaceable.