Hands of Time

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They say the eyes are the widow to the soul. Perhaps that’s true. But I think the hands have a great deal to tell us, too. I’ve always loved to look at and study the hands of older people. In fact, when I reflect upon dearly departed loved ones in my life, especially my grandparents,  the first physical feature that comes to mind is not their eyes, but their hands. All my grandparents have gone on to their eternal rewards. Their bodies are gone, but my memories of them, and of their hands, will remain as long as I live, for their hands revealed so much about their character.

My memories of mom’s father, my Grandpa McGinnis, involve his hands. His hands return to my memory in stages. As a younger kid who was just starting to get into athletics, he, along with my dad, played a key role in getting me started. I had always heard stories that my grandpa had been quite a good baseball player in his day and that he had played on some traveling, semi-professional teams. That always impressed and fascinated me. It was hard for me to picture him in his athletic prime, but his hands helped me envision it when he used them to show me some of the intricacies of the game he had loved and I was beginning to learn. He showed me the art of having “soft hands” as a fielder. He showed me how to use both hands to cradle a ground ball and how to bring those hands sharply and quickly up to my chest, smoothly transferring ball from glove to throwing hand and coiling up to release the throw to first base in a quick and efficient “bang, bang, bang” process. At his age,  he had lost his foot speed and some of his balance, but his brain and his hands still worked in sync to be remarkably graceful. As grandpa aged, his hands changed. He developed a condition that made the tendons in his hands draw up in such a way that made it impossible to extend his pinky fingers. They always remained pulled downward, so much so that,  in his last years of life, it would have been impossible for him to put a baseball glove on his hand. But, as a young little leaguer, at least, I got to see a bit of what those hands could once do.

My Grandma McGinnis had hands that told much about her to anyone who saw them. Her hands revealed her incredible endurance. Grandma McGinnis was never well in my memory. Arthritis had ravaged her by the time I remember her. On some level, I understood that she wasn’t capable of doing things with us like my other grandparents were. She tried, God knows she tried, but she was always in pain, one look at her hands could tell you that. Grandma’s hands were gnarled and twisted. Her knuckles were twice the size they should have been and her fingers pointed in all the wrong directions. Yet, she endured without complaint. As I type this, it brings tears to my eyes to think of the pain she experienced for years. Arthritis didn’t just ravage her hands, it was all over her body, but the visual image of her suffering was painted on her hands. But even though Grandma suffered so much pain,  she didn’t let it control her life. She couldn’t get out of the house nearly as much as she’d have wanted, but she did what she could to stay connected with her family’s activities.  She would have loved to have come to watch my high school and college basketball games in person, but that was just not physically possible for her most of the time. So she used her hands to tune in the radio broadcasts of the games and hung on every play from home. Then, with clockwork regularity on Friday and Saturday nights, she’d use her hands to dial the phone and call me to give me a full report on the game I had just played. She would even go over some of the plays as she had envisioned them in her mind’s eye. I cherished those calls from Grandma. One of my fondest memories of Grandma McGinnis also involves her hands. I was at Grandma’s house and we were playing a game of Rummy (grandma loved to play games and I can still picture her bent fingers managing to hold a fan of playing cards across the ottoman from me as I sat on the floor). I don’t remember what brought it up, but somewhere in our conversation that afternoon, the topic of dancing came up. Grandma mentioned something called “the Charleston” in passing. I didn’t know what that meant. Grandma, her body bent and riddled with pain, was not going to let the opportunity to teach me something pass. She managed to get up and she shuffled over to the kitchen door jam (presumably, so she could quickly steady herself if she needed to). There I watched my brittle little grandmother demonstrate the Charleston as she managed to stoop over and place her mangled, beautiful hands over her knees and shuffle them back and forth as she brought her knees together and back apart again. As incredibly painful as that must have been for her, it was done gracefully enough that I instantly recognized it and from that point on, I had a name to attach to that silly dance from the Roaring 20’s.

My dad’s parents’ hands told wonderful stories too. My Grandpa Phipps was a typical, hardworking Southern Appalachian patriarch. He worked for decades at the Tennessee Eastman Kodak plant in Kingsport and then came home and worked his small mountain farm and woodworking shop on evenings and weekends. One look at Grandpa’s hands left no doubt that they belonged to a hard working man. Those hands oozed strength and talent. Those hands could turn rough lumber into a large hay barn or a beautifully crafted piece of furniture. As a child, when I would spend weeks down at the little farm where my dad was born and raised, I can remember late in the afternoons waiting for Grandpa to get home. Without fail, he would come in and find me and my little brother and start up a spirited round of rough-housing with us. I can still remember how strong his hands felt as he would grab me by the wrist and begin to playfully wrestle. It felt like, had he wanted to, he could have snapped me in two, but he always knew just where the line between rough play and pain was drawn. I remember as a teen, growing into my own strong body, helping Grandpa with some of his farm work, bailing hay, repairing fence, cutting firewood, whatever the task, I watched Grandpa’s hands and marveled at the strength and ability they posesssed. As a teen trying to become a man, I wanted to prove to Grandpa that my hands were strong too. Whenever he would praise me for some manly task I was helping him complete, his words were a gust of wind to the sails of my soul.

I often think fondly of my Grandma Phipps’ hands was well. Her hands were wonderful, as they combined the strength and skill of a farm wife with the tenderness of a saint. Set loose in the kitchen, Grandma’s hands could work magic, producing some of the prettiest spreads of food ever placed on a country tablecloth. Many mornings I walked to the little chicken house with Grandma and watched her hands skillfully gather the day’s eggs and, once, I watched those same hands grab up a rooster and wring its neck for that night’s supper with the same efficient precision as if she had bent over to pick up a quarter. Grandma’s hands were also skillful with a needle and thread. I think of her hands every time I look at the beautiful quilt that covers the bed in our guest room. 

Grandma’s hands were calussed in the summer from hoeing the garden, snapping and shelling beans, and digging potatoes (she’d call them taters). In the fall, the calusses would be kept hard from standing over a big iron kettle on an open fire and stirring apple butter. All of these things flood my memories with images of Grandma’s hands and help paint the story of her life, but they are not the hand-related images that are the best window into her soul. No, if you want to really know who Grandma was, picture her hands folded in prayer. I never knew anyone who placed more faith in prayer. In fact, one of Grandma’s favorite things to say was, “prayer changes things.” If you knew my Grandma Phipps, you knew, with certainty, that she was praying for you.

I think about hands a lot, especially those of my dear grandparents. As I reflect, I wonder what someone’s memories of my hands will say about me when I am gone. I hope someone remembers them for something good they left behind.

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