I come from good lower middle class family with a healthy respect for education. Most of my relatives from the generation prior to mine had rarely finished high school, let alone gone on to college, but they weren’t stupid people, oh, no — we were regularly told that a good education was a path to a better life, and all had a lively interest in the world around them. My parents both liked to read and were creative, alert people, but I will admit that the combination of unschooled intelligence and an omnivorous curiousity unhampered by academic conventions meant that the reading material around the house was eclectic, to say the least. I’ve explained before that I had easy access to lots of weird literature, and I read just about everything I could find.
That’s the prelude so you can understand how I found myself in the uncharacteristic situation I describe below, over 30 years ago when I was but a skinny nerd in high school, and how I could be so stupid as to hurt someone I cared about.
I was sitting on the steps of the back porch when my father came home from work and sat down next to me. He asked what I was reading; it was a book about palmistry of all things, loaded with bogus diagrams and recipes for divination, all by looking at someone’s hand, so naturally Dad holds out his hand for a reading, not that I knew how to do such a thing. All I could do was go to the front of the book and start following the formulas from the top.
Now of course I knew my father well, and if I’d been a real bunkum artist I would have spun out a happy tale, pointing out the signifiers of the bumps and lines on that hand to add verisimilitude to whatever I said. My father was a romantic who eloped with his sweetheart fresh out of high school, driving off to Idaho to marry her under the more liberal age of consent there. He had an imagination — the first books I read were Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars, his books, favorites from his youth. He wasn’t much of a student, preferring to hike and fish anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. I’d been mushroom hunting with him in old stands of cedar after a fresh rain; he showed me how to tie and bait a hook, and how to sit patiently waiting for the steelhead to strike; when we cleaned the fish, he’d explain what all the organs were; we went clam digging on the Sound, and we’d happily grub about in the molluscs and polychaete worms and echinoderms. His hobby was art, and he liked to sketch and we had a few of his watercolors hanging about. He was good with people and seemed to know everyone in town, and was ready to have a conversation with anyone he bumped into—and he was a laughing good old boy, his humor a bit dark and cynical, perhaps, but never made at the expense of his friends. So, sure, I knew him well, loved him, thought he was the best dad around…heck, he was my hero.
So he held out his hand to me.
Something else you should know about my father is that he had a high-school education and six kids, and he spent most of his life working hard, too hard. He was on the Boeing roller coaster: getting hired at the most desirable blue collar job in the Seattle area for a while, and then when they didn’t sell enough airplanes, getting laid off and having to scrabble for temporary work until he could get hired on again. He’d done stints as a lumberjack and a railroad worker, a custodian and a water meter reader, and often he’d make do as a mechanic at a gas station. Frequently he’d be juggling a couple of jobs in these in-between troughs of poverty, trying to keep us afloat, no easy thing with that many mouths squawking at home.
So here’s the hand he gave to me: I still remember it vividly. It was like something carved out of gnarled granite, strong and solid, thick-fingered and muscular. The skin was leathery and calloused, scarred and bearing recent cuts, the nails rough. He always washed thoroughly with this powerful industrial goop before coming home, and I could smell that soapy, astringent odor still thick with the tang of oil and metal; every whorl was starkly outlined with ineradicable grease and grit. It was a strong hand that could have been on a poster for the Wobblies or on the cover of the International Worker, and it would have been posed holding a massive wrench or a sledgehammer.
My stupid little palmistry pamphlet starts out with a series of panels of outlines of hands, and we’re supposed to identify the shape that best matches—and there it is, as I point out to my father, the “spade-shaped hand”, which in the caption below is described as the hand of the common laborer. Goddamned idiotic book.
Have you ever seen someone surprised, seeing something familiar with new eyes for the first time? That was my father. He pulled his hand away and looked at it, and the wheels were turning, I could see—wait…that isn’t my hand, this isn’t my life, how did it get like this? We all have these moments, especially as we get older, looking in the mirror and wondering where that wrinkle came from, that gray hair, the slack lines around the jaw—but we usually don’t have them thrust upon us by our kids, we don’t suddenly get this twisted perspective that leads us to think that those we love see our lives as something not at all as we picture it. I hurt my father with those few thoughtless words, I effortlessly stabbed him deep right to the heart of him, and I could see it. I think it was the cruelest thing I’ve ever done.
My dad died on the day after Christmas, 1993. Every year at this time there’s one thing I think about.
Damn it, Dad, I take it back. Those are hands that can deftly fillet a salmon without a single scrap of waste. Those are hands that diaper babies. Those are hands that rescue lithe princesses on the dusty sea basins of Barsoom. Those are hands that held mine when I could barely walk. Those are the hands of an artist and a dreamer.
I knew that all along.