"If you want to know a man, read his autobiography--read his hands."
My Uncle Tasso
I'm no Einstein. Yet on this Father’s Day, my first since my Pop passed, as I dive into the murk that surrounded our bond, I stop to think that although Einstein may have contributed much in explaining some fundamental mysteries of our universe, if he really wanted to cement his reputation, his Theory of Relativity should have solved the existential crossword puzzle posed by the father-son relationship.
To say that I come from a tight-knit family would be like saying that Oedipus may have had some issues with his mother. Although both sides of my family were of Greek descent, I related to my Father's side of the family more deeply. They were a writhing mass of passion and noise, thunder and fire. Naturally, my Father's experience within his family shaped his vision of what a family should be. And not surprisingly, his image directly affected mine. One of the founding precepts of this image was that family was to be held closely. Even when you ventured off, it was something you carried with you — metaphorically never farther away than the tip of your hand. My hands have come to embody my relationship with my Father and my understanding of family. They connect me to him, and thus to my family, even today.
My Father's hands are strong, callused. Like fine scales, they can measure a pound of nails from a bin full of scattered metal. Much more fascinating, though, is how they measure and convey things beyond the tactile. Humor and sadness, consternation and love are all displayed by way of his hands.
The most distinctive trait of my Father's hands is the missing tip of his right index finger. He lost it in a lawnmower accident when I was a kid. It healed into a bulbous knot of flesh where the fingernail used to be. I remember the night he christened his new appendage–it became known as The Creeper. It was after dinner and we were laughing and talking. Pop's hands were on the table, ostensibly at rest. Without warning, the Creeper started to twitch with a life of its own. As I looked on with great caution, in a spooky tone my Father warned me of the Creeper's arrival. It was both simultaneously scary and funny. From that moment on, the Creeper became his emissary.
As I grew older, the Creeper's role expanded. My Father believed in corporal punishment, something he referred to as "lowering the boom." And no longer merely my Father's comic foil, the Creeper became his enforcer. I'd misbehave and he'd dispatch it in a way that always made a sharp impression.
If my transgression occurred indoors, Pop would strategically position himself in such a way that I'd have to pass close by to exit the room. In those moments, his mastery of geometry was such that I figured we were direct descendants of Euclid himself. I'd try to get past him, and just when I thought I'd made my way to freedom, the Creeper swiftly descended, thwacking me on the head. It always found its target–a neutron bomb in my Dad's arsenal.
As I got older, the Creeper changed its tactics. No longer reliant on brute force to convey its message, it became a wand that my Father waved as he attempted to orchestrate the cacophonous symphony of my life. When the futility of that exercise became apparent, the Creeper became a physical exclamation point that Dad used to punctuate lessons of meaning, thumping it pointedly into my chest just in case the lesson should be lost.
For all of my life, I've had a set of calluses on my hands just like my Father's, which made sense when I was working in the steel mills and found my hands wrapped around the working end of a shovel or jack hammer. Since I finished grad school, though, there was no logical reason for me to have them. So I cultivated them the way a gardener grows prized roses. I would exercise with no gloves on, massaging the ridges that sit at the base of my fingers. They were my link to the man that inspired that deep devotion. I've even wondered what it'd be like to have my own Creeper. In those frozen moments, I understand the paradoxical grip my Father (and family) has on us. And how the very thing that forms us, supports us, and is our salvation, can also disfigure us if we hold it too closely.
Like the man himself, the Creeper mellowed with age. I was home a year ago to see my Father as he was making what turned out to be the last turn in the final lap of his life. Whenever I would go back, we would always greet each other with a hug and a kiss, something we repeated when we said goodbye. The last time I saw my Pop alive, I took his hands in mine as I went to leave. The Creeper had withered and hung limply. Instinctively, I knew it was the last time I would hold his hands. Which only made me never want to let go.
But tomorrow when I think of Pop, though I mourn his absence, I will consider myself to be very fortunate. I have a lifetime of memories and the knowledge they express, nevermore than a fingertip away...