Monday, June 1, 2020

MY FATHER'S HANDS – The Kindest Bequest

I remember my father’s hands. They were more than ample for a man his size.
And strong too. Not farmer hands, but you could tell they were those of a fellow who rarely needed a handyman. The veins on the back stood up like so many purply little hoses running this way and that across a floor of bone and tendon.

Over the top, shrink-wrap skin which, as he aged, gradually morphed from leathery—toughened and tanned by seven decades of work—to something more like loose onion skin—thin, crepey, nearly transparent.

His palms changed too, the callouses softening, the skin turning shiny, buffed so long by steering wheels, axe handles and the insides of gloves.

And there were spots. What had been a few nice brown freckles inevitably grew and grayed into age spots. And then exploded into those outlandish, reddish-purplish blotches (senile purpura) that decorate the hands of the very old.

        Now and then it was more, an outpouring 
        of pride that flowed into me like a tonic.

My father was fair-skinned; he had to be careful about the sun. But somehow those hands always wore a tan. Generally he kept them clean—I still associate them with the smell of Coconut Castile soap. His nails too were well tended, though they did collect their share of soil, putty, grease and fish slime.

Dad’s knuckles never got gnarly from arthritis as Mom’s did. So I don’t think they were wracked with pain as hers were. He could still do just about anything with his hands, including playing golf until just a week before he died. I don’t know why, but I wondered if he ever had to use them in a fight. I doubt it.

I think of what those hands did over a 91-year lifetime. Once, they held me like some priceless antique; later, they spanked me when I deserved it, applauded me when I earned it, showed me how to toss a ball, pound a nail and reel in a fish.

They taught me how to replace bike chains and window panes and quite a few other tricks. After I’d flown the nest, they wrote letters to me…and the occasional check.  

My dad’s hands, though not accustomed to hugging, must have shaken my hand a few thousand times. I don't think a hug would have felt any better. His robust handshake spoke to me of his approval and assured me of his constancy. Often it was simply a Welcome home! or God speed, son. But now and then it was more, an expression of pride, a transfusion of well-being that flowed into me like a few milligrams of cocaine.

         The veins and creases etch a map of
         destinations quite different from his.

Dad was of a generation of men for whom a handshake meant a lot. More than simply a gesture of greeting or agreement, a man’s grip—along with a certain earnest kind of eye contact—was an indication of his integrity.

I don’t remember a lesson, per se, in shaking hands. It was more a matter of role modeling. As you reached for the other person’s hand, you opened the “V” between your thumb and index finger. You made sure your “V” got fully seated in the other’s “V.” At that precise moment, you squeezed. If one of you came up short you were left with not a handshake but an awkward, much-less-than-satisfying finger shake.

At least as important as the initial contact was how hard to squeeze. Generally, the firmer the better—up to a point. You had to gauge your own grip to the other person’s: less for folks with smaller or more sensitive hands; more for most NFL linebackers.


Now, at about the age Dad was when his hands were starting to put his affairs in order for “senior living,” I look down at my own hands. The veins and creases etch a map of destinations quite different from his. But all these journeys started in the same place his did.

For sure, I inherited many good traits from Dad...and a few not so good. I got his nose, his receding hairline and his build. But I don’t think you could pay me a kinder complement than to tell me I have his hands.

Yes, I remember those hands as if they were right in front of me…and, as I look down, I like to think they are.


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