My Father's Hands

I brought out the birthday cake while my family watched expectantly. A broad smile stretched across my dad’s face and the flicker of candles reflected in his eyes. We sang and he nodded his appreciation, reveling in the moment. He would forever be 36 years old in my mind—the first age I remember him as a child. But when he reached for his special piece of cake, I was shocked by his hands. Lee DuBois's 82 years of life were deeply etched in dark, thinning skin and protruding veins—a road map of experiences.

When had he become an old man?

I stood still to contemplate, my thoughts muting the chatter around the table. Those hands served him well over the span of eight decades. After the death of his father, he was deemed the “man of the house” at 12 years old. He inherited the chores in the field and barn as the only helper to his mother. Since his older five siblings left to pursue marriage and careers, he maneuvered a plow alone in the Kansan fields. In the following years, his slender fingers rhythmically milked a cow before school, threw a perfect spiral as quarterback of his high school team, and played the trombone in the band. They hammered out ditties on the piano, pieces such as “Nola” and “Short’ning Bread.” World War II took him away from the farm right after high school, where he snapped a proper Navy salute and meticulously set the explosion times for the ship’s biggest guns.

In contrast, he also wrote poetry.

As a sailor on the destroyer USS Beatty, Dad held the coveted position of amateur photographer. He obtained permission to keep the only un-confiscated camera onboard and captured photos of other ships as they docked in Pearl Harbor. A Chinese merchant developed and reprinted them at 6 cents apiece, and he sold them in packs of ten for a dollar to sailors anxious for a photo to send home to their families. This impromptu business raised $1000.00, which he put aside for a honeymoon with his sweetheart, Ella Marie. When the war was over, he immediately took the hand of his 19-year-old bride and placed a ring on her finger.

The wedding was on his 20th birthday; every year he said she was the best present he ever received.

Then the real work began. His hands completed mechanical engineering exams in college and worked to provide income while four children gradually made their appearance—two girls and then two boys in succession. Unlike the “hands-on-dads” of today, he didn’t change diapers or go to school meetings. However, he held his babies, played with toddlers, drove young children on his riding lawn mower, taught them how to bait a hook, throw out a line, row a boat and build a snowman. And those same hands mesmerized all the nieces, nephews, and cousins with magic and card tricks that couldn’t be figured out for years. He was a “showman” who developed and taught professional sales training for 30 years. Traveling 2,000 miles a week took him away from the family Monday through Friday but he still came home on weekends to mow the lawn, discipline children, and drive the family to church.

During Dad's absences and the course of our adolescence, the fun-loving hands and their guiding influence disappeared. He had difficulty relating and expressing love to us as teenagers. His hands rested in his lap in his easy chair after the grueling week of traveling. They were thrown up in exasperation when he couldn’t understand my mother’s angst in raising us alone. Suffering a grand mal seizure in his forties, his personality grew dark for a few years until his medication was regulated and his struggling business recovered. For the most part, our cheerful Dad was replaced with a moody man who became angry easily and often. Unfortunately, my youngest brother grew up with the memory of this altered man rather than the gregarious one the rest of us had known.

Gradually, he took the hands of his daughters and presented them to the young men chosen to be their husbands, and patted his sons on the back as they married their brides. He retired from his lifelong profession and took up a pen once again to author a book about his experience in the field of sales entitled, “Everyone Sells.”

He carried an inexpensive camera with him to family gatherings, snapping photos at odd times and sending the prints to us.

Learning to use the computer in his seventies, Dad wrote a weekly email newsletter called “Saturday Chatter,” which chronicled his and Mom's daily life as well as reported about our siblings and their families. Originally intended for the four kids scattered across several states, it grew to include aunts, uncles, and cousins from California to New York and Belize, keeping us all connected in an ever-increasingly disconnected world.

Now he was 82 years old, which meant a 62nd wedding anniversary. His hands—marked with age spots and reddish, fragile-looking skin stretched over the joints and knuckles—failed him at odd moments. He knocked over a glass of water at the birthday table, humbled and embarrassed by their betrayal. He attempted to play my baby grand piano, but his fingers fumbled over the keys. Shaking his head, he sadly resigned himself to the fact that he could no longer read music.

I heard snatches of the familiar songs through his attempt—only enough to make me yearn for more, which I know will never come.

His hands still grasped the hand of his bride, steadying her as she walked and protecting her from falls. He was quick to get requested items or carry anything she deemed “too heavy.” Those same hands desired to help me in the kitchen—I gave him a task even though it was easier and quicker to do it myself. I’m convinced he’d do anything within his power to help his family, of whom he was immensely proud.

But he had misplaced the sheet music and his fingers had forgotten the melodies, some of which he never truly learned to play.

Dad grows roses now. His pride and joy, he tends the Red Blaze, Double Delight, and Golden Celebration varieties with a vigilant eye. A friend remarked that she coveted roses like his. I told her it took sitting on the porch and quickly spraying each bug that appeared to produce the perfect blooms she admired.

He delights in sharing bouquets from his garden with anyone who shows an interest or with whom he deems worthy, which is most everyone who comes through the door. He marched in with the latest offering for me even on his birthday, handing me shades of corals, reds, and yellows bound with a rubber band in a jelly jar half full of water.

Love offered. Love accepted. Learning the language spoken through his hands, I notice thorns among the blooms.

And so it is with love. And so it is.