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The three tellings of Uncle Jay’s story

By September 1, 2023 30 Comments

I don’t know where Dad got his hair cut regularly, but I remember that a trip to Cedar Grove, just down the pike, was rare, which I thought–even when I was just a kid–just a little odd. Uncle Jay had a little barber shop on Main, fifteen minutes away–one chair, no waiting, or so it seemed to me, but we didn’t go all that often.

He’d lay a plank across the arms of the barber chair and set me down there when I was a little shyster. He had an electric razor or two, but I don’t remember the buzz as much as the patterned swish his scissors made when he’d pull a hank of my hair to shorten it. By the time I cared how my hair looked, I don’t remember going to Uncle Jay’s, but I have no reason to believe that he did anything less than a stellar job. He certainly did work slowly, but then he loved telling stories.

Uncle Jay wore his plastered down like Capone, but nothing about him made me uneasy or fearful. Whether I was in the chair or awaiting my turn, I don’t remember him ever talking to me.

But Uncle Jay was a storyteller. At family reunions, he owned the living room because once he got going, it was story after story of the Schaap family at one church or another (Grandpa was a preacher). He’d recite shenanigans in such detail they made me nervous, little stories of naughty boys, my Dad among ’em. The relatives loved it. Once you got him going, Uncle Jay was unstoppable. Maybe a few hymns too, and some good, solid spiritual talk; but if we could get him to tell stories, Uncle Jay was on the mound.

One story I’ll never forget. I was in the chair, eighth grade or so, old enough to feel the push and pull of some inward yearnings I could identify only slightly better than control. Something had happened right there in the shop, when an Asian woman, Korean, I’m guessing (some local boys had returned from service with Korean wives.) So this young mom had brought her little boy in for a haircut, first time Uncle Jay had seen either of them.

The kid wasn’t wild about the barber, but, like photographers, barbers have tricks to keep their itty-bitty customers from bawling. That Uncle Jay would not have developed a repertoire wouldn’t surprise me. The only customers I’d ever seen in the chair, other than the Oostburg Schaaps, were silver-haired.

Anyway, this boy, not liking his first haircut, cried and cried some more. Uncle Jay looked at my dad to make sure he was listening to the story. The mom got up from the worn chair, he said, and spoke to her little boy in Korean, soothsaying that had no effect. 

I’m sitting there in Uncle Jay’s chair, a kid myself back then, but at the age when forces far beyond my power were sharpening within me, I can’t help but think, by a Calvinist culture that loved singing what seemed a half-dozen senses’ worth of “Be careful little eyes what you see.”

So, I’m getting a haircut, in the chair, and my Uncle Jay, as he does frequently, stops what he’s doing, looks into the wall-sized mirror behind him, and speaks to my dad’s reflection. This time, what he says gets my attention.

This young mom, he claims, comes up to her little boy, stands right there beside him, then opens her shirt or blouse and pulls out one breast, pulls it right out and slaps her nipple into that little jigger’s mouth. In the mirror, I can see Uncle Jay mimicking the sucking. Honestly.

The little boy stops crying, Uncle Jay says. In the mirror he’s saying all of this. I can’t see Dad. Thank goodness he can’t see me. 

Uncle Jay is giggling a bit, little hiccup chuckles. He’s at his finest. 

I don’t know where to look. I don’t know that a female breast had ever been referred to or spoken of in my presence. With my friends, sure, but not with my Dad and my uncle. That my saintly dad was sitting right there thinking about a woman’s breast was almost beyond the pale. 

Uncle Jay was already in road gear. It wasn’t just that bare breast that got aired, but there was this matter of clean up. A few strands of the little guy’s cut hair came to rest right there on that white breast. Uncle Jay had a whisk broom, he said, but a stiff brush seemed way wrong. Dad was giggling, both of them oblivious to an adolescent kid, listening in to this whole lurid tale.

Anyway, Uncle Jay decided he’d just blow those rogue hairs off that bared breast. So down he goes, mimicking. He purses his lips and blows lightly–“phew, phew.” My dad was in full guffaw now, and I was totally abashed, the two of them talking about boobs. I was too young and too much of a Calvinist kid to laugh like they did.

That was the first telling.

Just a few weeks later, I was playing fast-pitch softball on the Oostburg “B” team, the young guys. Must have been the sixth inning or so; we were up to bat. Behind us, the A Team was warming up when some guy asked the others if they’d heard the story of the barber in Cedar Grove who had a customer who pulled out a tit to get her son to stop crying. I was a step or two on the other side of innocence, but I was embarrassed again, not so much because of how the story was told, but that it involved my uncle, even though no one else on that diamond just then seemed to connect the familial dots.

But the third telling that summer was somehow different. Far-off members of Dad’s family were at our house, in a circle in a packed living room. It seemed clear that Jay’s story had legs because some relatives begged him to tell it, which, after some coaxing, he did. Same gestures too, Uncle Jay pursing his lips and blowing at some imaginary breast. I’ll never forget it.

By the calendar, I wasn’t much older for that third rendition. But this one–same story, same gestures—I sat through without much blushing, inside or out. Something about the company, all that family, uncles and aunts, (some of whom held their fingers to their lips), and a bunch of cousins, something about that full circle of Schaap saints in the living room made it possible for me, for the first time, to giggle, not laugh out loud, mind you, but giggle.

When I think about it now, a half-century later, I can’t help but wonder if that was the summer this young Calvinist started growing up.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Marlyn Visser says:

    It astonishes me that you are not a son of Uncle Jay rather than your Dad. “But Uncle Jay was a storyteller”. “Once you got him going he was unstoppable”.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    What a horrible story.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:


  • Susanne Jordan says:

    The image of white men sitting around guffawing at the telling of a story involving the bare breast of a young Korean mother, as well as the shocking description of pursed lips blowing on that breast, made me feel a little queasy this morning. This story, however deftly told, reveals unexamined misogyny that does not belong in this esteemed journal.

  • Sharon says:

    Story made me giggle,

    • James Schaap says:

      Thanks. That’s how it was meant–and to touch on my own developing male, adolescent boyhood, now a bit more than sixty years in the past.

      • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

        That’s how I heard it James. It’s a different era though. And I wonder how the culture of a Korean woman enters in. It would be interesting to know her point of view in the story. Good conversations and points of view.

  • Dale Cooper says:

    Whatever laughter Uncle Jay may have produced whenever he told the story was the laughter of ridicule. It ought not to be extended now.

    • James Schaap says:

      You’re probably right. I shouldn’t have posted it. But in defense of my Uncle Jay, his telling, like most first-person narratives, made it his story, not the woman’s. She was the occasion, but it was his fumbling distress he featured. That the story is demeaning to the woman is an understandable reaction–and it’s my fault for remembering it and telling it here. But I swear there was no ridicule in it, not a dime’s worth. It was a story about his profound (and he would have said, silly) discomfort. He’s the center of his story; I’m the center of mine. If there was ridicule in his telling, it was directed at himself, not at the woman.

      • Phyllis Roelofs says:

        “When I think about it now, a half-century later, I can’t help but wonder if that was the summer this young Calvinist started growing up.”

        It is very disappointing that listening to such a story multiple times was the possible impetus for a young Calvinist growing up. I hope our current young people, Calvinist or not, are better educated regarding boundaries of what is humorous.

      • Jeannie Prinsen says:

        No. That’s not what comes across. Maybe uncle Jay sort of meant it to make fun of his own discomfort, but as YOU have written it, it is definitely the woman who comes across as being mocked and put down. And some of the comments here by other old men, one in particular, make clear that that’s the takeaway: “put away the National Geographics” “remember the time this wo– no I’ll tell you at Synod”

        So gross and puerile.

  • Diana Walker says:

    I appreciated the “Lake Woebegone-ness” of this story. Interesting to hear the commenting from various points of view.
    I laughed heartily…not at anyone whatsoever.
    Thank you for your coming of age story. I got it.

  • Jack says:

    Speaking of needing to grow up, and to get an education on how to correctly read the complexities of conflicting cultures and times as well as what it’s like to be human and be inexperienced no matter the age. . .

  • Jenna Korenstra says:

    There’s no positive value to this story. It doesn’t teach a lesson or affirm any virtues or positive values. In fact, it does just the opposite. It dehumanizes a powerless, immigrant woman and it reveals a shocking lack of moral maturity and spiritual sensitivity on the part of the author and the editor who approved it for publication.
    This article should be taken down before our Korean brothers and sisters read it.

    • jim day says:

      All ya’ll just get a grip. It’s life; real life…..and real life is messy and wonderful. Thank you for sharing James Schaap!!

    • Jack says:

      Funny. Your analysis is quite insightful. As as literature prof, I would have affirmed it. What dramatic irony, eh?

      Now as for the axing of the intelligently discerning author and editor, I refer you to Twain, Swift, Ivins, Lamott, Michelle Wolf, Wanda Sykes, Russo, Zadie Smith, David and Amy Sedaris and and

  • Jerry V says:

    The Christian Reformed Church is currently tied in knots over an issue(s) related to sex. The replies to Jim Schaap’s story suggest many of us are tied in those same knots. Our children read the replies and said something like “geez, get over it!.” Good advice.

  • Tom says:

    I’m a few days late getting to this, but I always go back to find the Schaap posts. As I started through the comments, my first thought was “you’re kidding, right?” Sad to say, it appears not.

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