From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

My Father’s Hands

The hand is the mind’s only perfect vassal.

Henry Theodore Tuckerman

My first memory of anything is of my father’s hands placing my new baby brother in my mother’s arms. It is a snippet of a memory. I can see Daddy’s hands, my mother’s smile and my brother’s red, screaming face.

My father was a man small in stature, never weighing more than 150 pounds, but to me, a child, he was a giant who could accomplish anything. He made things grow, fixed everything from a car to a skinned knee, kept the forest fires away from our house, brought home venison and wild mushrooms, and made the thunder and lightning stay up in the sky. I knew he could rescue me from the highest tree, the darkest night, the swiftest river or any situation my curiosity got me into.

He taught me the basic rules of life: don’t lie, work hard, keep your promises, love your family whether they are right or wrong, protect them when they need it and let them fall once in a while. My father’s wrath was towering and his justice swift.

My childhood was spent in a small town in the mountains. Infrequent days off were spent tramping the mountains and canyons near our home. I learned early to walk quietly through the woods, to watch to see how and why things grew as they did, how to get home if I was lost and how to tell a rattlesnake from a bull snake. My father’s hands taught me to put a worm on a hook, ride a horse, shoot a rifle, plant a seed, make biscuits and give comfort.

My father’s hands taught me about hard work. I can see his hands building a rock wall stone by stone, making that old Chevy run a little while longer, or creating things with wood. He taught me that you worked until the job was done. I can remember taking clothes to him at the office because the forest was on fire, and he wouldn’t leave his job as dispatcher until the job was done. Later, when he owned his own business, those same hands were busy for sixteen hours out of every twenty-four.

My father taught me about handshakes and being polite and to call everyone older than you—and that was everybody—Sir or Ma’am, and to shake his or her hand firmly. And once you shook someone’s hand after reaching an agreement, you did what you promised to do.

My father’s hands taught me the value of learning on all levels. He taught me to love books and value those rare and wonderful teachers who came into my life. He had been forced to leave school at the age of twelve, but he believed in education, and we spoke often about how important it was in life. He always believed in leading by example, and in my senior year of high-school, we did homework together and received our high-school diplomas the same year. I was so proud of him for going back to school after delaying his dream for twenty-nine years.

The time came when my father’s hands seemed always to be holding me back, not letting me go and do and explore. I know now that he was trying to keep me safe. He couldn’t, of course, and I think that hurt him greatly. When death touched my life and broke my heart for the first time, he told me everything would be all right, but he knew the thunder and lightning had come down from the sky, and he couldn’t put them back.

We fought, and I grew to resent his structure, his rules and his inflexibility about right and wrong. He didn’t change, and I saw him as a relic lost in the modern world. His rules didn’t seem to fit the world in which I lived. My life seemed too complex for the simplicity he had taught.

Then I married, and my daughter was born.

Suddenly my world became simple again. There was only one important thing—my child. I began to understand the basic rules that he had spent twenty-five years trying to teach me. They would keep my child safe in the midst of the world’s chaos. I tried to teach my daughter all the things my father had taught me, but I found I didn’t have the talent for teaching he had, so he taught her as he had taught me. When my husband no longer believed in living by the rules, my father’s hands once again reached out to protect us. He made me believe I was strong enough to make my own decisions and take care of my child and myself. Because he had never lied to me, I believed all that he told me, and I did survive and finally became fully adult.

Shortly after my dad held his great-grandchild for the first time, we got the diagnosis that he had a 50 percent chance of surviving the next few years. He put every ounce of his strength and will into fighting the disease. He never ceased to be positive, and he was always trying to make sure all of us were okay, even while his body was slowly wasting away. The man who used to run up a mountainside and hike all day in the river canyons couldn’t take a walk or go fishing. His family rallied around him.

Daddy’s hands began to shake and grow weaker; the skin began to bruise and tear like parchment paper. His hands more often held a cane now than a tool. I told him he couldn’t go yet because he hadn’t taught me all I needed to know. He smiled and said that I knew enough.

My father’s hands came to symbolize for me his love for his family, his integrity, his work ethic, and his plan to go on ahead to make the next world an even better place for us.

Dena Smallwood

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