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I’m always caught off guard by where the triggers come from for another story idea. Today it was a wonderful email I received entitled, “Grandma’s Hands”. As I read it immediately I envisioned my father’s hands, a natural enough connection considering my father’s venerable age of 91 at his death just six months ago in June of 2007. Frequently when I visited Dad he would silently stare at his hands while he was deep in thought. I would ask him what he was seeing in his mind’s eye and he would smile at me with that shy smile of his and usually say, “Oh, nothing!” By gently questioning him he might – this did not always happen – to start to talk about some aspect of his early life.

Knowing my father’s life story, I understand the many tasks his hands had accomplished. His mother Julia first held his baby hands lovingly in her own. Farm chores were done as a child with his father and four brothers without ever a complaint because that is just the way things were – everyone helped. Those hands peeled buckets of potatoes for his stepmother Philomena, for their large family as she was frail after the birth of his sister Maria and she needed that assistance. Playing cards with his father and brothers and later with friends was a pastime he enjoyed all of his life. His hands gathered potatoes from the fields and apples from the orchard. My dad’s hands milked cows and lovingly caressed and brushed horses.

His hands embraced his beloved wife Alice for 56 years. He held each one of his seven children at birth and throughout our lives. The ”heaviest burden he ever carried” – his words - was his one year old baby daughter Marianne after she died in Creighton in 1953, to take her little body to the funeral home. With his hands he comforted his 15 year old son Willy as he was dying in 1960 after a terrible car accident.

With those same hands he shook colleagues’ hands to seal a deal – his word as good as any document. When he broke his right elbow in an accident, he wrote notes to family in Holland with his left hand informing them of the birth of Baby Marianne. His penmanship was identical with either hand because although he was naturally left-handed that was not allowed when he attended school in the early 1920’s. When our mother had gone to visit her family in Holland in 1956, he wrote her letters keeping her up to date about the rest of us at home. While living in Creighton he became an expert blueberry picker and his hands would be blue from the juice of those tasty berries. He crafted lids for the filled baskets so that the berries would not spill out as he carried them to the Creighton Mine train station.

My father’s hands became miner’s hands while he worked deep underground at No. 5 Shaft at Creighton Mine, a job he could never have foreseen. A storekeeper at various times in his life saw his hands placing things on store shelves and using the cash register. Dirt under his fingernails indicated that he had been transplanting plants in the little greenhouse he built in Creighton or working in his own garden. “Clean dirt” is how he would refer to that. A hot cup of coffee in his hands at any time of the day was always satisfying to him.

My father loved to read and instilled that love in me and my siblings and so many books passed through his hands. He had an intense interest in politics, sports and world affairs and read Macleans from cover to cover for many years. Newspapers were eagerly awaited each day for the same reasons. Prayer books also rested in his hands as he was deeply faithful to his Catholicism. Rosary beads slipped through his hands often as he prayed silently and unobtrusively.

Playing pool was a life long pastime which developed when he was a teenager in Holland. He attempted to teach me in later years but I was hopeless! Dad became an excellent archer also at that time – a passion he was able to enjoy again when he and Mom moved to Wallaceburg in 1969. He was very competitive participating in international shoots in Detroit and other places in Michigan and had many trophies to prove his prowess. Only the best compound bow would do for his experienced hands. His grandchildren benefited from his expertise as he taught them his beloved sport in the yard in Wallaceburg. Being usually quite undemonstrative it was a wonderful way for him to bond with them. He was even asked to teach archery at the local high school and his picture appeared in the newspaper.

As he aged, he hugged us and our children more often and even replied that he loved us when we would tell him so first. My father’s hands were very strong and he loved to tease by squeezing our hands almost until it hurt while he challenged us playfully to admit that he was stronger than we were. But also those hands became gentle and protective when he was holding a new grandchild. I will never forget the sight of my father lovingly holding my mother’s hands as she lay dying, never taking his eyes off her face.

My father’s hands were those of a son, brother, husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. They defined the many roles he had in his long and productive life. I miss those hands and always will.

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