Friday, November 24, 2006


I read a reflection recently by Thich Nhat Hanh about our hands and how, if we look at our hands, we can see our parents, our grandparents, and all our ancestors there. He concludes: and your hands are always available for reflection.

It made me remember noticing the adult hands in my life growing up. Those images are, surprisingly, still very strong within me.

My dad's father's hands. Rough, calloused, oil stained, and parts of three fingers missing on his left hand. He was raised in a farming town. His father died when he was 8. He had two older sisters, and on his father's death bed, he became "the man" of the family. He began farming at age 8. I find that unbelievable, but the family stories are insistent. I only knew him as the owner of a "filling station" and as the man who taught me to garden. His hands told his life story, and it was one of very hard work, deep heart hurt, and a love of the outdoors.

My mom's father's hands were always well-groomed hands, clean, skilled, educated. He could do extremely complicated math with his slide rule and a pencil. He could create engineering maps and had impeccable handwriting. He could also do woodwork and thread a lure on his fishing line with perfect boyscout knots. His mother died when he was 7. His father was a coal miner. His hands didn't show all of his story, but they demonstrated where it propelled him to--college, study, and a different world than his parents.

My grandmothers' hands were as different as my grandfathers'. My dad's mom had unadorned hands that owned their own tool box. She was the "go to granny" when bicycles failed to work. She had a pocket knife that was always sharp enough to get any job done. She could shoot a gun and did when she had to. She cooked southern-country food as well as any. She wrote her own poetry with them. She hugged really well, and always had a handkerchief to dry tears. My mom's mom's hands were always in the kitchen, tiny, delicate, soft, sweet smelling. They made beautiful and tasty things. They touched gently. They required precision and perfection and politeness. They were hands that guarded tightly kept secrets and fears, and that often enough gestured to others who knew her when she was afraid. We always knew by how she held her hands.

I guess I do see them all in my hands. And my hands are always available for reflection. Hands are our inheritance. It makes me wonder how much my children know about the hands that are in theirs.

Bob Patrick

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