In Our Hands

There is an old photograph that we have hung in our home that shows my Great-Grandparents on their wedding day. They were married in a double ceremony; Mamie and Nellie, maternal cousins and their two new husbands, Harry and William, names that have been passed down to both my father and my youngest son. They are dressed formally; simple white gowns for the ladies, dark suits for the men and all of them wearing gloves. My Great-Grandfather looks so much like my oldest son it is almost scary, more than a century between their births, but it is the hands that stand out to me, huge in comparison to the hands I see on men today, from work, no doubt, but inherited I assume from generations before him and so much like my own. He wears a look of sober intensity that I have tried to emulate all of my adult life but which now comes to me without effort. On their happy day, there was a serious note that ran beneath the surface of their obvious joy, the world they faced changing as rapidly to them as ours seems to me I would suppose. Behind them sits a buggy hooked to invisible horses just out of frame, and it portends to things every time I gaze upon it. Separated by so much time, but linked as closely as if we were in the room together, which we are in a way.

I gave up using work gloves a couple of years ago. Before then I would buy between three and four pairs of them every year, a brand called Ironclad Ranchworx that were made of leather and nylon that fit well and were both tough and flexible. Most work gloves are either too generic fit-wise, having the feel that they were designed by a robot that had been given coded instructions on what hands were without ever having seen them. Each finger was roughly the right size and shape and the dimensions were almost hand-like but it was closer to the way a pair of pajamas feel as opposed to long johns; loose, comfortable, but not really made for the job. The Ranchers had reinforced leather tips and palms, plastic guards built into the knuckles, and they came in extra large to fit my oversized hands and they looked good, black nylon webbing between a butterscotch colored leather body. For the first couple of days they’d be stiff but depending on the work I was doing they’d break in quick enough and before long they would lose the rigid, new feel and turn into a second skin. Within a month they’d develop holes in the fingertips of the middle and index fingers as well as the thumb so I’d wrap a couple of turns of duct tape over the tears and worn spots and keep on using them for as long as I could, replacing the tape when I needed to. When I wasn’t wearing them I’d stuff them in my back pocket and if I was lucky they’d be there when I reached for them later, but if I’d lose one along the way its orphaned mate would be tossed into a wire basket in the barn and I’d pick up a new pair to replace them and start fresh. In this way, there were always a dozen or so well-worn, odd men laying around to do double service if I required them or if someone came around to lend me a hand with farm work and wanted a pair to use.

When I was seven years old a family friend gave me a Swiss Army knife for a present. If you’ve ever known any seven-year-old boys you’d know better than to hand them something like a high-end cutting instrument packed with accessories. It came fully loaded with two cutting blades, one longer than the other and both honed to a razor’s edge. It had a flat tip screwdriver/bottle opener combination, a Phillips head screwdriver, an awl, a small saw blade, a cork screw, and scissors, as well as a small plastic toothpick and a pair of tweezers tucked into slots at the end with a little ring projecting from its that you could hang from a chain or a lanyard. It was enamel red with a silver cross embossed on one side surrounded by a shield and it was the only gift I received that year that I can remember to this day. After the friend left our house my mother placed it on top of the refrigerator with the admonition that I was never to use it without permission and only under adult supervision. That warning was effective until my mother left the house to work in the yard and determined to make a piggy bank out of an empty Clorox bottle, I scaled the kitchen counters and retrieved the knife from its hiding place. I still have a clear view of that knife in my hand, holding the bottle by its slender handle with my left hand and pushing against the curved surface of the plastic container in an attempt to pierce the vessel. There is a part of me that can almost recall the way the blade slid at an angle, caught the tip of my pinky finger right where the nailbed ended and sliced down to the second knuckle peeling back a flap of skin that rolled away from the bone itself, revealing the pale yellow periosteum before the blood began to flow. I howled, dropping the knife and the bottle on the linoleum floor, splatters of crimson falling with them and ran for the door. I grabbed my finger tightly but the blood, oily and hot poured through my little fist and soaked my shirt front and by the time I found my mother crouched in the garden I must have looked like I’d been stabbed by an intruder. She scooped me up in her arms, wrapped a dishtowel around the maimed digit and together we sped off to the nearest help she could think of; the State Police Barracks a mile and half down the road. It was a Saturday, and the only person in the building was a tall, crew-cut wearing Statie with a serious look on his face as calm as if it had been his fifth mangled finger of the day. The nearest hospital was in Princeton about a half hour away and if my mother had driven there instead I would have received at least a dozen stitches, but the trooper was one of these down to earth, grizzled vet types who had probably charged onshore at Anzio or Tarawa and he treated the wound himself, cleaning it, replacing the flap of skin across the knuckles and bandaging it firmly while my mother watched, grim-faced. She told the story about the knife, about my disobedience and I tried to fill in with as few words as possible and only when prompted. When he was finished he told me to follow him and I rose dutifully, the creak of his leather belt and holster filling the room as he walked. He took us into the garage that connected to the barracks and when he flipped on the light there was, in the middle of the floor, a crumpled and bent Schwinn bicycle laying in the middle of the floor, a bloody sneaker laying next to it. He gave me a good long look to let it sink in. There may have been other things in that room, but that was all I can recall and when he finally spoke he was grave and his voice was slow and measured.

“The little boy that owned that bike didn’t listen to his mother. The next time your mother tells you something, you’d better obey her.”

He flipped off the light switch and we turned back to the lobby and before we left he handed me a dog-eared Lone Ranger comic book and ruffled my hair with his giant hand. My mother thanked him and I mumbled my own thanks as well and we went home to clean up the mess I had made.

It took a while for my hands to toughen up without the gloves, but they did. It saves us about $150 a year to do without, not including the duct tape. I still wear them on occasion, when I pull barbed wire or split cord wood, but for everything else, it seems like a good mix of callouses and caution do the trick. I will still pick up a splinter every now and then, but always as a result of carelessness — brushing sawdust off of a board, feeling the grain of a fencepost, those kinds of things. There is a learned behavior that only follows injury and pain, cannot be learned any other way and it is as stern a teacher as that State Trooper was in that cold garage next to the barracks in 1967, leaving an indelible memory that saves us from future pain. The palms of my hands are so deeply creased and lined that they look like a Dorthea Lange photo and in the center of each I have begun to develop Dupuytren’s contracture — Viking’s grip as the old timers used to call it. The hands slowly, inexorably over time turn in on themselves. The fingers curl as the pretendinous bands develop a thickening from wrist to finger tip, palmar aponeurosis is the medical term but the result, absent the Latin terminology is simple — the hands become permanently bent as if perpetually grasping an invisible tool. As old age advances and the muscles weaken but the genes remind the working end of the man that his labor is still required. The endless hours, years, centuries and eons of holding one instrument after another, knives and swords, scythes and oars, rakes, dibbles, shovels, knitting needles, bodkins, hammers, awls, rods, pitchforks, cudgels, saws, axes, all mark an impression, not only upon the flesh, but the DNA of one generation after another. My father ‘s hands, like his mother before him, my uncles and my aunts, my cousins and one day my children I suppose are marked like Cain, not upon our brow but in our hands. I can still see my grandmother, in her 90’s hunched over a colander at the kitchen sink, peeling potatoes for our supper with hands as gnarled as oak trees on the hilltop, working her paring knife like a surgeon.

Last night before bed my son and I lay together in silence reading books. Every so often there would be the soft whisper of a page turning, a quiet laugh would escape from his lips and then there was no sound but the muted click of the clock on the shelf ticking off the seconds of our life. After a while he sighed and yawned and rolled over towards me and I lay my book down on the bed marking the place where I paused. He leaned in with his eyes closing and placed his hand in mine. He traced the scars and the callouses and measured his fingers, unmarked and smooth against my own, swollen knuckles and skin going to paper across the bones beneath. Neither of us said anything and slowly with no effort at all, he fell asleep while I watched him.

My mind covers a lot of ground at night before I drift off, what I have done or left undone. I catch glimpses of the past as they creep along the periphery of my thoughts and I can feel my own body longing to let go, to give in to sleep and the rest I have worked for all day long. There are plenty of concerns these days that have nothing to do with my own mortality, that’s a comforting shore I can almost see in the distance and I’m sure that like the sleep that lies ahead it will come on me as easily. The things I dwell on these days revolve around my children and the world they have come to inherit and all the complex and divisive issues that they entail. I know what goes on in the cities and in the larger world around me even if I don’t live in that place and I fully comprehend what it means for my children, but it is out of my hands. So in the meantime, I do what I can with my own two hands, twisted and covered with scars and realize that they were meant for this work. They are designed for holding tools and shaping a future, but they also hold the past as tightly as it holds me.

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