From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

Hands of Time

And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

Abraham Lincoln

I looked at the hand resting on the table; it looked familiar. Slightly pale, lacking the heavy tan of earlier years and earlier seasons, and now a few brown spots seemed to make their presence known. I stared at it for a minute as I answered my cell phone, surely not a polite thing to do, to talk on the phone at the dinner table.

No one seemed to notice, though, as I quietly chatted my way through dinner. I looked at the fingers, slightly crooked, seeming more crooked than I had remembered, and the nails, perfectly cleaned and trimmed. They’d always been that way, I surmised, the impeccable habit of a man who washes his hands a hundred times a day. But the age spots bothered me. When had those hands reached that milestone, that acknowledgement of decades of service?

Still, they were good-looking hands, I thought, ivory skin against the crisp white dress shirt, a gold watchband slightly visible beneath the starched cuff.

Grasping the water glass with a firm, steady grip, it was a hand that looked as if it could tell many a tale. The thumbnail was not quite perfect, showing signs of having been smashed one too many times when younger, perhaps with a hammer as he missed the other nail, the nail he was trying to pound into a piece of wood. The skin on the thumb was rough-looking as well, the result of a new piece of glass that didn’t cut exactly the way it was supposed to many years ago, and a piece of thumb lost in the process.

No ring on the fingers of the right hand, but I glanced at the left one holding a fork. On that one the soft shine of a well-worn gold wedding band filled a groove on the third finger, a groove so deep it looked as though it had been there from birth. And an age spot or two on that hand as well, I noticed.

I thought of those hands as I talked, and continued to study them. Hands tell us so much about a person’s life. I pictured these hands on a younger man, whose hands carried a baseball or a football, or packed snow into a tight ball before winging it wildly, that also grasped a shovel or a rake and pushed a lawnmower around the backyard. In my mind I saw two hands clasped together tightly, as young lovers do when they walk, the rough one holding a smaller, softer one. I pictured the hands of a young father picking up his newborn son, gently fastening the snaps on a toddler’s overalls, or teaching a youngster to tie his shoes.

I thought of the work those hands had done: bagging groceries, pumping gas, working on machinery large and small. Countless hours and miles spent grasping a steering wheel, and in later years, the incessant pecking at a computer keyboard.

I wondered, did he ever think that these hands would get this old, that his fingers would ache from the stiffness in the almost worn-out joints, and that without gloves he would not be able stand even the mildest of winter’s days?

I doubted it, for seldom does anyone think he will get old until his body starts to slow, and perhaps also his mind, until he lacks the acuity, both mentally and physically, that gave him the edge he used to have.

I thought of my father and his hands, and remembered his smooth gold ring, worn soft from years of exposure to the work he had done. My father’s hands lifted me when I was young. One of my fondest memories is of Dad picking me up and putting me on his shoulders as he stood chest deep in the cool water of Cayuga Lake, and then letting me dive forward over his head. I would beg him to do it over and over, part of our summertime Sunday afternoons.

And I thought of Dad’s hands in his later years, watching him absently massage his fingers as he talked, the fingers that ached often and were always cold. He would sit in his chair in the late evenings, tired from a full day of work, his hands covered with a little blanket, trying in vain to keep them warm.

I looked at the hands on the table once more. My father’s hands, for sure, just the way I remember them, only they are attached to my arms now. I finished the phone conversation with my son, a conversation spanning nearly thirty years and 2,000 miles, and while wondering where time had gone, thanked him for sharing my solitary evening meal.

Gary B. Xavier

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