My Father's Hands
By Paul M. Clements
When I was just a toddler, my first thoughts of my father were of how huge his hands were. So big, I could sit in his palm, diaper and all, like a little bird. It was a comfortable seat for me at that age. He was strong, and his hands were huge and meaty. He could hold me at arms length, and I still felt safe and secure. As I grew older and bigger, I noticed that I could no longer fit so securely in his palm. Still, his hands were big and strong. He could lift heavy things with ease. I marveled at his strength. I often looked at those hands in amazement, watching him use them to perform fatherly tasks. He was a great fixer, and could put a bicycle together, unclog a drain, sharpen a kitchen knife for my mother. Those were talented hands. He was especially adept at building cabinets and closets, repairing windows, leveling floors and laying tile. His hands could measure and mark, cut and saw, hammer and screw wood together like an artist painting or a sculptor carving.
As I grew older still, I found that those same hands could be an instrument of punishment. As any boy-child might, I occasionally transgressed. Then those hands of his would be swung like a paddle, usually aimed at my backside. I came to fear them, for they were still huge and strong-appearing to an eight or ten year old boy. Not that I didn't deserve the swats, or that they were inflicted with unusual cruelty. He was an old-fashioned father, who believed in instant correction for wrongdoing. So, in that fashion, I learned moral and ethical lessons from those hands.
When I entered my teen years, I began to notice changes in my own hands. They were becoming larger and bonier, and I often wondered if they would ever become as strong and capable as Dad's. By now, he was entering middle age, and his hands did not seem so huge, but appeared to be getting meatier. Ham-handed, I think they call it. It was as if he had muscles bulging out around the finger and knuckle bones. He certainly had a lot of strength in them, and Mom was always calling on him to open stuck jar lids. Sometimes, though, I began to notice there were tasks he could not perform barehanded. His need to resort to a wrench, or to a vise, or to a hammer, to accomplish some task, caused me to stop thinking of him as a superman. His hands were beginning too demonstrate his mortality, and I was recognizing it for the first time.
When I graduated from Navy recruit training, my fathers' hands changed again. Full of confidence, I returned home on leave feeling like I had at last attained manhood. My father hugged me at first sight, then, embarrassed a bit, he stepped back and extended his hand. We shook, and I realized that, at last, my hands were the same size as his. Not quite as strong yet, but getting real close. In later years, we worked together filing cars, doing yard work, building a house, undertaking renovations. His hands were still strong and capable, but now I saw them as normal man's hands. Large, calloused, strong. He could work outdoors in cold weather, with his hands turning red, and never complain. I learned stoicism from those hands in the cold of New England winters.
When I married, and had a child of my own, the circle of life began to close in on itself. I held my daughter in my own palm one day, and realized that that was my first impression of my father. I wondered if my daughter would remember me by my hands. As I looked at them, I realized how much like my fathers' hands they had become. Same size, same shape, same wrinkling of the skin. As I stroked her hair, I wondered how many times my father had used his hands on me in the same fashion, while I slept, unaware. A grandfather four times over by now, I noticed age creeping into my father's hands. More wrinkles, less muscularity, an occasional brown spot. Sometimes, he had to ask me to open a jar, or pick up a heavy object. His hands were becoming weak and bony. An old man's hands, crossed back and forth with blue veins, standing dearly under the loose skin.
Finally, his body began to malfunction. Several times he had to be hospitalized, and it was painful to me to see his hands pierced by needles and swathed in tape and gauze. Lifting a glass to his lips, his hands would shake, as if with the exertion. He lacked the old confidence in their power and utility, and moved objects carefully, lest they be spilled. Sometimes they did. At the very end, in a hospital emergency ward, he seemed to have difficulty just lifting those hands to wave "hi". Thin and bony, they remained motionless most of the time. Early one morning, I was summoned to the hospital to say my final farewell. As I took his lifeless hands in mine, and felt the warmth fading away, I realized how important those hands had been in my own life. The comfort, the safety, the help, the lessons they had offered. With a final comparison, I saw how much of him I had inherited. When last I saw those hands, folded together across his chest, clutching his prayer beads, I couldn't resist laying my own on top of them, mentally saying, "Thanks, Dad, for lending me a helping hand while I was growing up."
—Paul M. Clements can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org