My dad’s hands
My dad came up to our house yesterday to help us haul stuff off to Goodwill. The process of combining two full households has been a slow one – Lance and I are both packrats, with hobbies that lend themselves to accumulation of Stuff – and we’ve been plugging away at it all winter.
The three of us had a dinner date with Lance’s dad after we got back from the donation rounds, and we sat at the kitchen table telling stories while we waited for the Alabama scrimmage to end so their number-one fan could join us for barbecue.
Lance and I are always ready these days with dog-training adventure tales, but we were lucky to catch my dad in a story-telling mood. He’s a spinner of tales, just like his grandfather, a man I never met. I always told him when I was younger that he would make a good author, that he could write a memoir with all his stories if he would just write and not think about his colloquial grammar and how he hated English class in school.
My dad told us about his crazy week at work, racking up miles delivering cookie dough for a company that supplies school fundraisers. He has driven trucks, of various shapes and sizes, off and on for probably half his life. When I was little, he drove a “package car” – a UPS truck to the uninitiated – and my sister and I yelled “OOH-PEE-ESS! OOH-PEE-ESS!” whenever a brown delivery truck passed our car on the street. He took me to the airport he worked out of once when I was a little older, and I was amazed at the refrigerated vending machine in the break room. A machine full of sandwiches seemed like the pinnacle of opulence to an elementary-schooler.
He told one of my favorite stories, about his high-school summer job monitoring chemical levels at the local waste water treatment plant. I live near a treatment plant now, and the smell is always the worst after a heavy rain. Dad said he never understood why the county trusted him, at sixteen, to be the sole line of defense for the cleanliness of the water – although he only mismeasured the chemicals a few times! He worked four day shifts and one night shift. The night shift was Friday nights, and he said you could tell by the water meters when Johnny Carson went to a commercial break – every toilet in the county would flush at once, and the needles would shoot up and then fall back to normal levels.
I watched him fold and unfold his hands on my kitchen table as he talked, and I noticed a scar on his index finger, one I’d never seen before. Dad said he didn’t remember where it came from. It was a long time ago. He probably should have had stitches, but he hadn’t.
“I should’ve had stitches for this one, too,” he said, showing me the tip of the same finger. Another scar I’d never noticed – this one not discolored, but blobby and misshapen, disfiguring the top of his fingerprint.
“What happened there?” I asked.
“That was when I was lifting weights for wrestling in high school” – I winced – “and I had a ton of weight on the bar. When I went to put it back down I got my finger wedged between the bar and the holder you set it down in. Popped it like a grape. Should’ve had stitches, but I just put a butterfly bandage on it and went on to practice.”
“Don’t rob a bank or anything, Dad. It won’t take them long to catch you with a crazy fingerprint like that.”
I noticed something else, though, looking at my dad’s hands. I’ve spent a lot of time watching Lance’s hands, since we got married, since I’m with him every day doing household tasks together. His hands, his fingers, are nothing like mine. His fingers rise long and spatulate from small palms and narrow wrists, with short, square nails. His drummer’s muscles make smooth, economical movements as he works.
My mom’s hands, which I watch anxiously for signs of arthritis, are small and increasingly bony, her knuckles swelling from typing her doctoral coursework, her motions quick and birdlike. I have her long, oval-shaped fingernails, like painted acrylic fakes. But the fingers those nails (wasted entirely on me; they should have gone to my cousin Sara with her love for salons and polish) are planted in are not her fingers. They are long, slender, and slightly tapered, set in wide fleshy palms and bending backward when I straighten them. My dad’s hands.
“I have your hands,” I tell him. We hold them up alongside each other, and it’s true – they are the younger, smaller, more feminine version of his. Less scarred and more often put to bed in Vaseline and gloves, but they are his hands.
Our fingers move independently of one another – his from years of woodworking in the basement, mine from teenage years as a cellist in the school orchestra – and tremble the same way when we straighten them. Our hand motions are fluid, but incautious, sometimes unnecessary. Our thumbs curl in when at rest. Our hands are the same. I am his daughter. And we are similar, have always been more than any two others in the family.
Throughout the day, I notice more similarities I’ve never seen before. His eyes dart around when he’s explaining a complicated situation. Mine are rarely still when I speak to anyone I haven’t known for years. The slow blooming of my smile when I see something I enjoy – that, too, was his first. The bantering conversational style I’ve developed while working with the public in a small rural town? Not my own development after all – it sounds just like his, right down to the phrasing we use. We’re both slow to rise from the couch and slow to collect our thoughts when asked a thoughtful question.
When I got married, it was like a switch flipped and I somehow became more sentimental, more observant of the fleeting nature of the precious things in my life. I cry over commercials and cute puppies now, something I always giggled at other women for doing. But I notice more, I step back and see the perfect moments in a way I didn’t before, and I treasure these glimpses of my dad in myself more than I could have as a younger person.
I see my dad more clearly through the lens of my own adulthood than I did when he was just Daddy. I see his tenacity, his commitment to giving every effort his best. I see the artist in him. I respect his intensity. I see the way he adapts to circumstances and makes them a part of himself.
And I see the ways he is a part of me and I am a part of him, and it means more to me than I knew that we belong to each other.