What My Father’s Shaving Lessons Taught Me About Life

Be patient, avoid mediocrity, and pay attention to details.

It was his sacrosanct daily morning routine.

After getting up, before putting on his suit and leaving for work, and before breakfast was served, my father took the ownership of our kitchen table. We didn’t have hot water in our skimpy bathroom, so water had to be heated on the gas stove. He didn’t need much––maybe 2 ounces. Just enough to fill his tin shaving bowl. This paltry item came up with its own heroic provenance. Just by looking, one could tell this little vessel weathered many storms, and indeed it did. Its sides, once smooth and shiny, looked neither. It was salvaged sometimes, somewhere, from the ruins of bombed Warsaw, and gave an impression as if some giant hand crumpled it, and later tried to smooth it up. To little avail. The invisible hand didn’t complete the restoration even a half way. And all the wrinkled crumples only added to the majesty of the object, like scars adding to proof of a battle. This shaving bowl was an icon––it was indestructible, like our capital city, and was invincible, like my father surviving the German invasion and Warsaw Uprising.

From the little drawer, he pulled a shaving brush. It was another relict from the stormy times. It had a wooden handle with bristles which were down to their nubbins. The wooden handle was cracked in several places, but its roughness prevented slipping while covered with soap. It still held a genuine badger’s silvertip, the real one, not bleached. Next, from the same drawer, he pulled a stick of soap, made just for shaving. He displayed all the utensils on the table covered with a white towel.

My father sat on a bench and put another towel on his lap.

“Do you know what’s the most important for a good shave?” Of course I didn’t know. I was just twelve years old. “There are two things. One is to wet your face well, and the other––to have a good soap. Real good soap. And the soap is most important.” He wetted the brush thoroughly in hot water. “For the best shave, you go to a barber. Before he even touches you with a brush, he puts a hot, moist towel on your face. So hot, that sometimes it hurts. But when he shaves you, you don’t feel much––all the whiskers are soft.”

He took a brush and worked its bristles on a half-gone stick of soap. “It’s the best, you can buy it in “RUCH”. RUCH was a little newsstand next to our house. We could get their two papers allowed to be published by the communists, but also an array of cosmetics, post stamps and some books. One Christmas, when before our gift-giving dinner I still didn’t have any presents for my mother, I bought her a small bottle of perfume. Or it could have been an eau de cologne. I didn’t know the difference.

He applied soap to his face, starting from his right side, next to chin, lips and the two on the left side. Never hurrying, he repeated the process several times, each time wetting the bristles in his beaten up tin bowl. When my father finished the lathering, and it seemed forever, he loaded a safety razor into the handle and carefully tightened up the blade.

“See, you can adjust the angle. It depends on how coarse is your beard. And how long are your whiskers.”

Then, with slow strokes, he plowed through the layer of soap. It reminded me of shoveling snow on our sidewalk.

“You have to shave twice. The first time in the direction of hair, the second against it,” he said. “Each person is different. You’ll learn.”
I slid the dorsum of my fingers over my face. It felt as smooth as a recently polished bathtub.

“When will I start shaving, Tato?” I was hoping for months.

“”Two-three years,” which sounded way too long for me. I couldn’t wait. My voice was still girlish, and my muscles were feeble. Darek, a friend of mine, had much bigger biceps. I asked him, how did it happen? He was two years older.

“Does your mother have an iron?” Of course she did. “Pick it up and do twenty arm bends, every day, both arms.”

“Is that all?”
“That’s all. Every day.”

“How long do I have to wait to have biceps like yours?”
“Two-three months.” Again, it seemed forever to me.

Mother bought my father a new shaving kit for Christmas. It stayed in a drawer, and each morning the old one, beaten up, ended on the white towel covering the kitchen table. The tin bowl was filled with a hot water, ready to show its battle scars and tell its remarkable past.

Much later I realized what was all this ritual about. My father tried to teach me how to be patient. He was telling me to have a set of principles and follow them. If you like something, stick with it. His beaten up tin shaving bowl, which went through hell during the war, his half-used brush, were examples of the value he’d held to. The patience in lathering his face exemplified the importance of hard work. Picking up the best available soap told me not to tolerate the mediocrity. Then repeating shave for the second time gave the lesson of attention to the details.

The exercising with the ironing iron was another lesson in patience. Map a solid path for improvement, and stick with it. And wait. Nothing comes overnight.

And never, never give up.

My father shaved every day. Except for Sundays. “Your skin needs a rest,” he said.


  • This entire piece, this heroic provenance for a shaving bowl so graphically and majestically defines your father and what he passes on to you. The words, your descriptions are so griping that I sat down to a feast and hated for it to end. What a story and what a gift to give to a son with such a simple operation – a shave with a dented and crumpled shaving bowl. Thank you.


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