When the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

Five months after my father’s death, my mother was ready to let go of his personal effects. She recruited me to help transition the house from “theirs” to “hers.”

My mother had put his toilet articles in his nightstand to clear his presence from “her” bathroom. I opened the drawer and there on top was his Kent hair brush. My mother always said, “Kent makes the best hair brushes in the world.” They had bought this one in England. I lifted it from the drawer as if it were a fragile piece of glass.

Knowing my father had had his fingers curled around that same handle, I felt almost as if our fingers were touching one another. My skin on the cold wood connected to his fingerprints. Prints on top of prints.

Kent advertised this brush as “a work of art.”  Its beech wood handle was hand sanded and protected with a gloss that made the wood shimmer. The white boar bristles were hand trimmed in the Kent factory and hand stitched into the brush. The differing lengths of the bristles were intentional – this enabled the brush to penetrate hair to reach down to the scalp.

The soft bristles were ideal for my father whose hair thinned and receded in his twenties after he lived in fox holes for weeks on end, without bathroom facilities, for 14 months in Germany during World War II. My father always groused that he had to pay the same at the barber shop as men with a full head of hair; since his few hairs only circled the back of his head, he felt entitled to a discount.

I studied the fine wisps of silver hair, almost indiscernible within the bristles. So thin you could easily thread the narrowest needle. Remnants of his morning ritual at the bathroom sink after his shower and shave.

While Dad was alive, I never thought about his hair brush, with the sparse hairs he could barely afford to lose. Holding it in my hands, I realized it could tell me about the places where my family story began. Those thin silver hairs contained his DNA and the history of my family that was burned to oblivion in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. This commonplace item was a repository for biological and genetic evidence of my ethnicity — a touchstone to my past and my genetic makeup.

I wondered, when we are gone, are we nothing more than the people and possessions we’ve left behind? Was this all that remained of this man that I loved — a hair brush, clothes, a grieving family, and money he’d saved?

How much we overlook and take for granted when someone is alive. Who knew that a Kent hairbrush, in addition to being a “work of art,” could also reveal links to the past? With my father gone, the ordinary belongings he used for his daily living became extraordinary.