Back when I was first ordained, in 1992, I was a clean-shaven young man with nary a whisker to mask my boyish good looks. People often commented on how young I looked and how they couldn't believe that I was old enough to be a minister. I even had a couple elderly church ladies actually pinch my cheeks.
Then, in 1995, something happened. At first, I thought it was an accident. Kimberly, who was pregnant at the time, and I went home to Virginia for Thanksgiving and I forgot to pack my razor, so I came home with a week's worth of... well... to call it "beard" would be generous, but humor me.
My beard doesn't really grow in that fast, or that thick, but I had always kind of wanted to grow a Grizzly Adams beard and getting a week's accidental jump on it galvanized me to leave the razor in the drawer, despite the ribbing I took at church about "trying to grow a beard." Eventually, though, I had to admit the pitiful state of my facial hair. The razor came out and I shaved everything down to a nice little goatee.
A couple weeks later, Kimberly and I were taking a Lamaze classes at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the nurse midwife who was teaching the class noticed that every single dad-to-be in the room was sporting some sort of facial hair. "How many of you guys started growing your facial hair since your wife has been pregnant," she asked us, and every single one of us raised our hand. "That's perfectly normal," she told us, "many men feel the need to grow something themselves when their wife is pregnant. Some take up gardening. Others grow facial hair." I guess since it was winter, none of us had opted for setting out flats of tomatoes, but maybe my leaving the razor at home at Thanksgiving hadn't REALLY been an accident at all. Maybe it had been a subconscious drive to create!
Over time, the goatee thickened up and became pretty respectable, though I always chose to wear it fairly small. Still, even with the goatee, people would comment on how young I looked and would, at least metaphorically, pinch my hairless cheeks.
I wore that goatee for 13 years and every child who drew my picture, whether it was my son or a kid from church, portrayed me with a brown circle around my mouth that made me look like a toddler that had thoroughly enjoyed a fudgsicle. My goatee became something of a trademark. One Halloween, some of my parishioners (a dad and his two young sons) came to a church party dressed as me -- with paper clerical collars and paste-on goatees.
Still, I longed for more. Every time my family went on vacation, I would decide to give the full-beard another try, but each time, my wife would "suggest" that I go ahead and shave back down to the goatee so as to avoid public ridicule. Such spousal wisdom is hard to ignore.
This past Christmas, though, I finally got my chance! With three months of sabbatical -- on a schooner -- in Africa -- I figured I just might be able to pull off the beard growth I needed, without having a congregation chuckle at my attempts. I could look as ratty as I wanted and be able to pass it off as "salty." It was the perfect time to forget the razor!
So, just before Easter, I came back home furrier than I left, still no Grizzly Adams, but with fuzzy cheeks to match my furry chin. My wife likes it. My son told me that I should definitely keep the full beard. What was even better is that nobody made any comments about how young I looked, anymore, not even visitors to church. The cheek-pinching was over! Life was good!
Then I went to the mailbox.
As I sorted through the mail, setting the bills aside, tossing the fund-raising letters in the recycling and separating out credit card offers to shred, I came across a piece that didn't fit any of my ready categories. The envelope had red lettering on it and I opened it with a certain trepidation. It proved to be just what I had feared: proof that my new beard does, in fact, make me look older. I had received an AARP membership application, along with my own little plastic card with an authorization code! Alas, I guess the beard works a little too well.
Now, all I'll have to do is wait another dozen years until I'm old enough to become a member.