Friday, May 30, 2014

These Old Hands


Growing up in a family of older people, I was accustomed to seeing hands that were wrinkled, twisted and callused from many years of hard work in the fields, woods and houses of country home places. The hands of many were also full of ugly dark splotches on the backs where bangs and scratches caused the thin skin of the aged person to form purple bruises at the slightest touch. One active great aunt in particular had hands more purple than tan. I’ve often wondered what all those hands I’d seen had done over the years, especially in the “old days,” when times were different. My father, who passed away at age 59, had just gotten to that stage where his once tough skin had turned thin and sensitive to bruising, though his hands were still as large and strong as ever.

I turn 59 in a couple weeks myself, and my hands too, have gotten to that stage where the slightest pressure or bang makes a purple spot. Just yesterday, I was pulling the studs from my rear tires and got a good bang against the fender well. Instantly, my skin oozed blood and a purple spot about the size of a dime appeared on my left hand. A few minutes later, when I remarked to my wife about having “old man’s hands,” she reminded me that gloves were designed to protect those appendages. I’ve gotten unaccustomed to wearing gloves since I left the woods and factory work behind me. The calluses of years past are gone now, replaced by soft palms and knuckles. My hands could pass for those of a city-slicker…….almost.

I took a good look at my hands today; in fact, I even took a picture of my left hand to show you. It’s not a very good picture, but the most obvious thing is the wedding band, I suppose. I’ve gained enough weight over the years that it now sits in a deep grove on my finger. I’ve spent 36 of the last 38 years married, the last 31 to the same woman. I just tried, for the first time in a few years, to take it off and it appears that it would come off, if I so desired. That means my once meaty paw has shriveled from lack of heavy work, because for many years, it wouldn’t have come off without a major effort.

You really can’t see in the photo that most of my thumbnail and the top of that knuckle are missing. I tell folks that I fought the saw and the saw won (the 52,” 40-tooth mill saw, that is.) (Note to sawmill owners, shut the blade down before adjusting the guides, UNLESS they’re designed for it.) The small donut-shaped mark barely noticeable a couple inches above the knuckle of my index finger, and the two small whitish-looking parallel lines just above my little finger are from jumping off a horse while going down a steep gravel driveway at a canter. I’d made the mistake of thinking I could control my first horse well enough to ride him with only a halter and lead-strap. It turned out that I was mistaken, so when he was on the verge of running across the county road to see the neighbor horses across the way, I decided that he could risk his own life, but not mine. The blood loss was minimal.

That got me to thinking what all my own hands had done over the years. I remember holding my parent’s hands when I was little. I remember feeling the differences between catching grasshoppers and tadpoles. They helped pull calves from cows struggling with giving birth, and they’ve carried day-old calves a half-mile to the barn, where we could keep a better eye on a heifer and her first calf. They stroked the coat of many a dog over the years, both mine and those that belonged to others. They also held the head of my first girlfriend as we shared what was the first kiss for both of us.

They’ve grasp many an axe handle, and the handles of sledge hammers, splitting mauls and even a couple foot-adzes. They’ve held chisels and mallets, handsaws, crosscut saws and chainsaws, and have sharpened all those tools and more, even doing it for part of my living for a year or two. They’ve honed knives, axes, hatchets, machetes, Christmas tree knives, scythes and sickles. They’ve carried many thousands of feet of lumber and uncountable truckloads of slabs and firewood. They’ve shoveled tons of manure, sand, gravel, creek gravel and dirt, and carried thousands of cement blocks and bricks. They’ve forked several loads of hay and raked hay with a wooden rake made by an elderly neighbor.

They’ve fed domestic animals of several varieties and butchered squirrels, rabbits, grouse, groundhogs, muskrats and coons. They’ve skinned fox, possum and mink as well. They’ve baited hooks, unhooked fish, threw some fish back and dressed others for the skillet. They’ve whittled sticks, carved wood and kindled fires. They’ve curried horses and cattle and trimmed horses’ hooves. They’ve plaited ropes and leather and grafted fruit trees. They’ve restored antiques and torn down dilapidated houses. And, they’ve written thousands of pages of script and printing.

They’ve grasp the hands of young and old. They’ve carried many people to their waiting grave, and they’ve dug part of at least one (my father’s). They’ve hugged no small number of girlfriends in the day, lit cigarettes that I shouldn’t have smoked, and whacked about a dozen fellows up alongside the head (most of whom got in their fair share of punches themselves). They’ve stretched barbed-wire, hammered nails and served as an owl call to make turkeys gobble.

They’ve held most of those I’ve loved, including a little nephew that I “lost” when I got divorced many years ago. (He liked to sit on my knee to eat his breakfast cereal.) One of my favorite things to do with them these days is to hug my little granddaughter. All these things are just the tip of the iceberg of what my hands have done over the years. The Lord has blessed me with a couple of really handy tools on the end of my arms. Think for a minute of all the things your own hands have done over the years; it will amaze you! © 2014


Vicki said...

Your post about hands reminded me of my Dad. His hands never even once were raised in anger toward me, although they should have been brought down with some force against my backside more than once - I was that kind of a kid. I always felt safe when my hand was in his. Sometimes we would just sit and he would hold my hand and not say a word. Didn't need to. My last memory of my Dad was sitting by his bedside, holding his hand, just days before he died. Thank you for bringing back those memories for me.

Lady Locust said...

Hands certainly tell great stories. They are the most difficult thing to draw. It has always amazed me how big ol' rough hands can also be entirely gentle.
Great post.

Gorges Smythe said...

You're very welcome, Vicki, and thanks for reading some of my memories, as well.

That's true, LL, and thanks.

Mamahen said...

Great post...I too have thin skin n old hands! Also have many memories of my hands and my mama's...but one if my most treasured memories is when my mother was in MMH a couple if months before she passed. She needed to be transported to OSU in Columbus ...She was blind and while we were waiting to load her I stroked her forhead...and she said I'll be ok and called me by name .I asked how she knew it was me and she said "oh I know your touch." Bittersweet memory:))

Ralph Goff said...

I see myself turning into my dad more and more as time passes. Especially the hands. Thin, weak skin that bleeds at the slightest impact. Red marks from past injuries even though I wear gloves most of the time. So far all digits intact in spite of the dangerous nature of farming.

Gorges Smythe said...

She felt the love, Mh.

I suspect it's as much your heart as your hands that match your father, Ralph.

Sunnybrook Farm said...

I was looking at work the other day and I was the only one with cuts and scratches on my hands and arms from working outside at home. I looked down the other day while in the garden and blood was running down my arm from some little cut. Thin skin I guess.

Rick Beaty said...

I agree with Ralph. My hands replicate my Dad's. I miss him dearly.

deborah harvey said...

we all love you, mr. g.
hope the job s not too onerous.
may Jesus continue to bless you.
deb h.

Gorges Smythe said...

It happens to ALL of us if we live long enough, SF.

As do I, Rick, but of course my own father more. Your dad was a good guy.