My first memories of my father were of how huge his hands were. So big, I could sit in his palm, diaper and all, like a little bird. I could sit there and feel safe and secure. As I grew older, and bigger, I could no longer fit so securely in his palm, but his hands still seemed big and strong. He could lift heavy things with ease. I often looked at those hands while he performed manly tasks. He could fix a bicycle, unclog a drain, or sharpen a kitchen knife for my mother. He was adept at building things, repairing windows, and laying tile. His hands could work wood or fix pipes with ease.
As any boy might, I occasionally transgressed. Then those hands of his would be aimed at my backside. I came to fear them. Not that I didn't deserve the swats, or that they were inflicted with unusual cruelty. He was an old fashioned father, who believed in instant correction for wrongdoing. So, in that fashion, I learned moral and ethical lessons from those hands.
In my teen years, I noticed changes in my own hands. They were becoming larger and bonier, and I often wondered if they would ever become as strong and capable as his. He still had a lot of strength in them, and Mom was always calling on him to open stuck jar lids. Sometimes, though, I noticed there were tasks he could not perform barehanded. His need to resort to a wrench, or to a vise, or to a hammer, to accomplish some task caused me to stop thinking of him as a superman. His hands were beginning to demonstrate his mortality, and I sensed my own, as well.
When I finished Naval service, my fathers' hands changed again. My father hugged me at first sight, then, embarrassed a bit, he stepped back and extended his hand. We shook, and I realized that, at last, my hands were the same size as his. Not quite as strong yet, but close. In later years, we worked together fixing cars, doing yard work, building a house, undertaking renovations. His hands were still strong and capable, but now I saw them as normal mans' hands. He worked outdoors in cold weather, his hands turning red, and never complained. I learned stoicism from those hands in those cold New England winters.
When I married, and had a child of my own, the circle of life began to close in on itself. I held my daughter in my own palm one day, and realized that that was my first impression of my father. I wondered if my daughter would remember me by my hands. I realized how much like my fathers' hands they had become. As I stroked her hair, I wondered how many times my father had used his hands on me in the same fashion, while I slept, unaware. A grandfather by now, age showed in my fathers' hands. More wrinkles, less muscularity, an occasional brown spot. Sometimes, he had to ask me to open a jar, or pick up a heavy object. His hands were becoming weak and bony. An old mans' hands, crossed back and forth with blue veins, standing clearly under loose, thin skin.
Finally, his body began to malfunction. He had to be hospitalized, and it was painful to see his hands pierced by needles and swathed in tape and gauze. Lifting a glass to his lips, his hands would shake. He lacked the old confidence in their power and utility, and moved objects carefully, lest they be spilled. Sometimes they did. At the very end, in a hospital emergency ward, he seemed to have difficulty just lifting those hands to wave "Hi". Thin and bony, they remained motionless most of the time. Early one morning, I was summoned to the hospital to say my final farewell. As I took his lifeless hands in mine, and felt the warmth fading away, I realized how important those hands had been in my own life. The comfort, the safety, the help, and the lessons they had offered. When I saw those hands, folded together across his chest, clutching his prayer beads, I couldn't resist laying my own on top of them, mentally saying, "Thanks, Dad, for lending me a helping hand while I was growing up.”