By: Mary Fran Bontempo
I wrote this piece a number of years ago, but I like to rerun it around Father’s Day, because despite the fact that my dad has been gone for twenty years, I still miss him every day. This is for you, Dad, and Happy Father’s Day to all the wonderful dads out there.
My Father’s Hands
I remember my father’s hands.
They were perfect “man” hands, large, rectangular, just enough hair between the joints of the fingers. His nails were squared, always clean, neatly clipped, never bitten, with a clean edge. They were hands that did desk work, but also, on the weekends, yard work, home repairs, and, on every holiday, dinner dishes from large family meals. Mom cooked; Dad did the dishes.
He never wore a wedding ring; I don’t even know if he had one. One year, my mother gave him a pinkie ring with a tiger eye stone. It was the only jewelry I ever saw him wear. I always thought the term “pinkie ring” sounded foolish, effeminate, certainly not something a “man’s man” like my father would wear. But I remember how it looked on his hand, almost regal, as though it knew it would never find a more handsome hand, a more fitting one.
My father’s hands always inspired deep emotion in me. When I was little, it was often fear, because he did hit us sometimes, back when “spare the rod, spoil the child” was the childrearing advice given to most parents. As I got older, the fear was of a different sort, especially when his hands were “fixing” something around the house. If the repair of the day involved plumbing, those hands could be frightening indeed.
He would start early on a Saturday morning announcing, “I’m fixing the leak in the basement. The water will be off for about an hour.” My sister and I would begin to shriek and wail, “Mom, we’ve got to go out tonight! Can’t you just get a plumber?” Followed by, “Oh girls, don’t be ridiculous; your father will be done in a little while.”
Six hours, three trips to the hardware store, eighty-five swear words and two rolls of duct tape later, the water was still off and my sister and I were reduced to using “dry shampoo” and lots of talcum powder. Later that week, the plumber, observing the duct-taped pipes would say, “Your husband was fixing the pipes again, huh?” before undoing my father’s handiwork.
After I left home for a husband and marriage, I didn’t see as much of my father’s hands. We lived in an apartment so there was nothing for him to “fix”. But when I would visit, he would insist on walking me to my car. He would take my elbow in his right hand and walk me, practically lifting me off of the sidewalk until I was deposited safely in the driver’s seat. I was always so annoyed by the time I got home; the ritual became in my mind, one last effort at controlling me, one final way of letting me know he was still in charge. I couldn’t seem to break completely free of those hands and I hated it.
When my children were born, my father’s hands became gentle, something I do not remember from my own childhood. His grandchildren had him completely befuddled, because they were not afraid of him. They laughed at him, and the ogre disappeared as he shrugged his shoulders and threw up his hands at these babies who found him amusing instead of frightening. He played ball with them, wrestled with them, still “man” things, but they enjoyed him and I enjoyed him then, too.
The last few months of his life, my father was again working with his hands, wallpapering the home in the suburbs he had just moved into with my mother. He was happy with the move; he had grown up outside of the city, but spent his married life raising his children in urban Northeast Philadelphia. For as long as I could remember, he longed to move and live in his own little “kingdom” in the suburbs. My mother, a city girl born and bred, felt as though she had been exiled to Siberia, even though their new house was only minutes from my own. My father once again dove in with both hands to fix something. Surely, a redecorated interior would make the move easier on my mother.
When he wasn’t inside wallpapering, he was outside in the huge yard, weeding, hammering, fixing the old fence, his hands always busy, even if they were covered with poison ivy. (Though he fancied himself a gardener, he didn’t know the difference between poison ivy and a grape vine, even if it were covered with fruit.) My father loved that house. He lived there for eight months, not nearly long enough.
When my father lay in the hospital, with no hope of recovery from a stroke he suffered just two weeks shy of his sixty-first birthday, I recall looking at his hands. How could these hands, which had insisted on inserting themselves into our lives, like it or not, be stilled? No more fixing, controlling, duct-taping, gardening, or playing with his grandchildren.
At my father’s viewing, my hands took over, shaking hundreds of other hands, occasionally reaching over to touch him, as though they needed another sense to confirm the reality, since my eyes would not believe what they saw. I don’t know if they use make-up on hands when preparing a body, but his hands still looked perfect, except that they were still, perfectly still.
My father has been gone for twenty years now, and I miss him every day. But mostly, I remember my father’s hands.
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