Out of My Father’s Hands
Early yesterday morning, 850 miles away in Alabama, my sister told me, “We are with Dad. He is ready to go see Nome [Mom]. He loves you.”
Today we document our lives in hundreds of digital images and store them in a “cloud.” Like the wonder of the telegraph in the 1800s, we send words, billions every second, via a void called the Internet and instruments cleverly branded Android and iPhone.
Ah, branding. As a savvy New York writer/agent told me at a recent book conference, “You must become a brand, or you won’t make it.” To which I retorted, “I am a person, not a brand.”
Ironic. Perhaps hypocritical: I “storytell” things and people as brands for a buck—in a staccato burst.
Dad never “branded” himself. He was a person in full.
The brain is beautiful mystery. Streaming images run in and out of our heads, faster than the race wrought by digital engineers.
For some reason, I have not yet perched pictures on a “cloud.” But I will likely upload in the near future.
Images of Dad flow through my mind. A bevy of pics and the 350-word limit of a blog post cannot keep up. This is my personal expression, for I cannot speak to the recollections of my brother and sisters. One image appears repeatedly in milliseconds: his hands.
They were short, with square palms and thick fingers. Unremarkable. Except for what they did:
Pulling on worn overalls and snapping the suspenders. Milking the cow at sunrise. Hauling sheaves of wheat and husked corn to Jim Dean’s mill, where a paddlewheel steadily lapped up a sliver of creek so ancient stones could grind out flour.
Preparing cornbread (unsweetened, thank you) and keeping watch over an iron skillet as it browned in a wood-burning stove, committing to memory his mother’s recipe handed down over generations.
Begging the principal of his country high school for a Latin class so he could qualify for pre-med studies.
Clutching a college catalog and crying to sleep because there was no money to supplement a partial scholarship.
Thumbing from Appalachia down to Atlanta for a job as an office boy and waiting for his 17th birthday so he could enlist.
Pulling the wounded and dead off Utah beach.
Looking up at the sky as 30-foot waves curled over his LST and dreading the next wave of kamikazes or typhoons.
Mixing chemical recipes in a lab and awakening to the miracle of science.
Painting dorm rooms and supervising a frat house kitchen to bolster his GI bill education.
Exchanging love letters with my next-door college-coed mother—on scraps of paper pinned to a clothesline rigged between their bedroom windows.
Putting his head next to Mom’s as they turned the pages of histology textbooks.
Signing into a cheap motel on their first honeymoon night—with telltale wedding rice falling from his thick, black hair as my mother laughed.
Enduring years of 100-hour weeks during his internship and residency—and loving the touch of life-giving moments.
Treating any patient of any color.
Hitting the backyard brick steps with a “Humph,” signaling his return home to fork down fast bites of supper (“inhaling” his food, as Mom phrased it).
Greeting each of us after work with a lift over his shoulder and a slide down his back as we giggled in delight.
Flash-cleaning and frying just caught fish on camping trips, at the lake, and in the kitchen of a rambling beach house at solitary Four Mile Village in Florida.
Yanking the bow of my straw sunbonnet to rouse me from a sunrise doze just as my fishing pole almost slipped out of my hands (fisher king and failed fisher girl).
Pacing the dock, with five fishing rods lined at the edge, to reel in a catfish feast (he tossed them backwards over his shoulder into a homemade holding tank—a hole sawed into the boards, with an underwater “cage”).
Frying cornmeal-battered hush puppies—golden, crisp, and light.
Furtively building my Christmas dollhouse in the basement and carefully measuring the height of the doorways to fit my Barbies (Santa Claus was a genius carpenter).
Lugging home a surprise box of my beloved Oz books “just because.”
Carting home my first art history books—Raphael, da Vinci, and Michelangelo— “just because.”
Drying sage on the pool table, lending special flavor and aroma to Thanksgiving dinner.
Plowing his suburban “back 40″ so we could savor “real” vegetables year-round.
Stirring up skillet after skillet of golden-brown peanut brittle and packing it in gaily ribboned split-oak baskets, along with homemade jams and pepper jelly—gifts for neighbors, patients, and preachers.
Making hog’s head cheese in the laundry room while my boyfriend stared in shock.
Writing a rare letter, telling me to choose my major and career, indeed life, with no need for his approval.
Signing check after check to ease my way through college and sending me to Europe to study long before he set foot on the Continent (excluding a few feet of Normandy).
Grabbing the wheel of a rented Passat, manhandling the Paris Périphérique, and then gunning 145 kilometers on the open road while my mother crawled into the backseat and never crawled out (he hid years of speeding tickets from her).
Lingering on Monet’s Japanese bridge at Giverny and wistfully reminiscing about the only art history class permitted in his crowded undergraduate schedule (the museum guards finally threw him out at dusk).
Stashing my first essays in the top drawer of his office desk and passing them on to anyone patient enough to read (a major morale boost at age 24).
Writing his own eloquent essays and reading them aloud for a test run.
Penning the grueling medical details of the Crucifixion for a Sunday school class.
Hanging a watercolor inscribed with 1 Corinthians 13:1–13 on the wall opposite his desk—a gift from a cancer patient and the theme of his practice.
Clasping the hands of families and praying before an operation.
Freely treating country folk, with medicines and syringes mixed among the hooks and lures in his tackle box.
Bathing and shaving my mother’s uncle after his stroke.
Loving every relative and in-law, down to every cousin six times removed.
Vacuuming and dusting the night before my mother’s parties and luncheons—without being asked—and creating charming arrangements of zinnias that bordered his garden.
Beating a broom handle into a broken garbage disposer until 2:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day (I never could figure out that fix-it trick).
Installing four revolving fans in the bedrooms at 10:00 p.m.—drilling just as everyone was going to bed (they always spun wobbly).
Hauling home a Roto-Rooter to repair a stopped-up toilet at 10:00 p.m. (rousting us out of bed to hold long hoses in a drizzle).
Playing country cool when he listened to Johnny Cash’s beautifully cruel cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
Crooning to his grandbabies—in deep monotone—the ballads that never left his North Georgia soul and later cherishing the first great-grand.
Keeping close to my mother when Alzheimer’s stole her mind and voice but never her loving spirit.
Holding my sister’s hand when her husband died.
Living in a state of grace for 32,369 days.
My dad’s hands flipped through the Bible many times as he searched for a verse or two to insert into one of his talks about life (he did not call them sermons). However, a seven-book series about the world’s great religions sat on a shelf in his study. His hands held those, too. Dad was a devoted Methodist and humanitarian. He never judged any righteous soul, whatever his or her faith.
At the end of his life, Christ said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” A poignant sentence, yet I always return to what came out of Christ’s hands during his earthly lifetime. Healing. Encouragement. Strength. Love. And I remember what came out of my father’s hands.
Latin textbook courtesy of Dr. Marcus Gossler
Clothespin courtesy of Alfred Borba
Garden vegetables courtesy of Liz West
Zinnias courtesy of Ahura21
What a wonderful and loving tribute to your remarkable father. Your writing moves me every time and even more so with this post. I feel like have gotten to know him through your involvement with The Southern C. Thank you for sharing him with us. Praying for your family in the days ahead but thankful for your memories that will sustain you. xoxo