It was Dad’s last day in the hospital, and Mom and I were talking in the hallway. “It’s so strange to see him with his hands still,” she said. “He’s always doing something with his hands.”
And it was true. From the time he was a small boy, Dad was always doing something with his hands. He made science fair projects, helped his father with repairs around the house, fixed up cars, built things. He served root beers and worked in a foundry in the 50s, painted signs and boat transoms in the 70s, and worked a cash register at Target to keep busy in the 2000s.
When he and Mom were first married, many of the things his hands made were out of necessity, not just for fun. Painting names on boats and making signs for local businesses gave him a creative outlet, sure, but it also earned extra money for Christmases and birthdays. Many of my favorite toys were made out of spare wood and things he found in the garage – a swing made from a Model A tire, a scrap-wood horse –(appropriately named Splinter), a balance beam made from two sawhorses and a 2-by-6. Virtually everything he built is still in use, everything from sawhorses out in the garage to the cabinets he built to hold my childhood toys and books. Every room in both Mom’s house and mine includes something he made or fixed, installed or improved, painted or refinished.
He wasn’t just a good maker, he was a good teacher, as well. When he encouraged Mom to take classes at the community college and work part time, he taught me the value of supporting your partner, and the importance of education. Meanwhile, his hands learned to make fish sticks or Prego spaghetti for us on the nights Mom was away at dinnertime. He taught me to catch crabs and fish (although we never did catch the giant lunker bass that lurked in the depths of Mrs. Shepherd’s pond). He taught me how to row a boat and paddle a kayak; how to hammer and saw, paint and spackle, whittle and glue. His hands taught me how valued I was as they took time to play catch, shoot baskets, throw a Frisbee, skip stones, wield a badminton racket, and show me how to throw a nice tight spiral with a Nerf football. He showed me there was nothing wrong with being different – his hands were putting vinegar on green beans, eating leftover German potato salad for breakfast, and picking approximately 400,000 cucumber slices off of salads throughout his life.
Dad was generous with his abilities – most of what he made or did wasn’t for himself. He did work on his house, yes, but he also helped older neighbors with their maintenance, and some seasons he spent as much time working in my aunt’s yard in New Jersey as he did in his own. If you needed something fixed, painted, trimmed, or modified, he was your guy – half the time you didn’t even have to ask. Once I told him I was having trouble keeping my yarn from rolling all over the floor when I was knitting, and a couple weeks later I got a package in the mail. He had made a yarn holder for me – and not just a yarn holder, but a carved yarn holder shaped like a hand holding a magic wand. And when my parents’ friend Grace asked him to fix an old wheelbarrow she had in her yard, he did – even when it meant replacing all but two of its parts.
Dad was always curious – about everything and everyone. He kept index cards and a mechanical pencil in his pocket at all times, because he never knew when he’d think of something he wanted to look up when he got home. He loved maps and globes, and was always looking up obscure places near and far. As you can imagine, his habit of wanting to strike up a conversation with EVERY docent in a museum was horrifying to me as a child – never mind that he was learning all kinds of cool stuff and meeting interesting people, it was just so embarrassing! You never knew who he was going to meet – one day at our house in Cleveland we went for a walk around the block, and Dad got caught up in a conversation with a neighbor who lived down the street from us. After a while, Mom and I continued on home without him, leaving him deep in conversation. Later Dad told me all about the property values in our neighborhood, thanks to his conversation with a “very nice real estate agent down the street – he’s got a daughter just about Liza’s age, you know. You should go talk to him.” A few months later at Liza’s preschool open house, a man came up and introduced himself – he had met my father earlier that summer, and had heard all about me and my daughter. Now my daughter and his daughter are best friends – but they might never have met if Dad hadn’t stopped to talk that day.
Dad didn’t just love to talk, he loved to tell stories, too. His favorite one was the time his friend Geoff brought his boat down the river and lost a shoe in the mud while he was wading to shore across the street from our house in Maryland. That same day, Dad was doing some work on the front porch when he found an old shoe abandoned under the porch floor. Everyone was delighted to find that the shoe was the right size – and foot – to replace the one Geoff had lost in the mud. And then there was his story about his father’s galoshes – repeated so often we eventually had to drown him out with a chorus of groans whenever he’d start in with, “My father had a pair of galoshes that were sooo big …”
Dad’s hands were active in his retirement, volunteering at the Kalmar Nyckel and the New Sweden Centre. He made commemorative plates for the Kalmar Nyckel foundation, trained to serve as crew on the ship, and helped with some of the maintenance on the ship and in the shipyard. He helped make and outfit displays in the New Sweden Centre museum. He joined a carving club and passed on some of his knowledge of that craft to the other members.
As his illness made it more difficult for him to participate in his other interests, carving took over more of his time. He even went to some craft shows and sold a few of his carvings – but I think he enjoyed meeting all the shoppers as much as he enjoyed actually selling things.
Several people have asked me what Mom and I are going to do as a memorial for Dad. I guess some people get buildings or streets named after them, or at least get a park bench put in front of the library in their honor. And we may do something like that eventually. But I can think of a more fitting tribute that all of us can give him. Dad’s hands touched the lives of everyone here today. Maybe he was part of your family, or your mentor, or your friend. In some way, his hands helped you, or taught you, or inspired you. And although Dad’s hands are now still, we can continue his legacy. So think of what Dad meant to you – and pass it on.