Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Father's Hands

My hands have never looked like they belonged to a real lady.  They are short, stubby and not very glamorous.   Even when I used to pay good money every two weeks to get my acrylic nails done, they never really looked all that feminine.    Genetically however, they are just like my dad's hands.     They have well earned calluses and little scrapes and scratches because I have a tendency to go full force with my hands, whether it's typing too hard on the keyboard or trying to pull a scared cat out of a bathtub that they accidently fall into and getting scratched in the process.  Like my dad, my hands are also there to hug my children and tell them they are great even if they don't believe it themselves.   One day, I hope that I can give them a hand up as adults in the countless ways my parents have for me and my brothers and sisters over the years.  

When I was a little girl, my dad was a lot like Kevin Arnold's dad on the Wonder Years.   He had a temper but underneath it all he was a guy with a heart of gold who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.   Like Kevin's dad, he eventually started his own business exporting office products to the Caribbean.   He would go out on business trips - usually one a month.  I remember back in the late 1960's and early 1970's, that he would come home smelling of ink and cigarette smoke.   He stopped smoking before I was born, but because people could smoke anywhere, anytime (yeah, those episodes of Mad Men are pretty accurate -  there was no Non-Smoking section -  you just inhaled that second hand smoke).   He would always bring us back gifts from the places he traveled - the Bahamas, Aruba, Jamaica, and Haiti (back in the days when it was Papa Doc and there was some tourist trade).   I remember his hands giving us small wood cravings, or woven art pieces, t-shirts or hats made from straw.   He would also get samples of pens before any of the stores would - so we could bring pens that had lollypop tops, or flowers to school.   We were the first kids to get fuzzy neon pens that had perfumed ink which in the mid-1970's was quite a coup - Walgreens and Zayre's were months from having them yet.    When he was out of town, it always felt weird.   My mom did a great job holding down the fort, getting us up for school, dressing us, getting us out the door, then fixing dinner, bathing us and getting us back to bed.    She always seemed happy to see him when he came back and he'd help with the "babies" as he would call me and my sister Sharon  - we were the last two kids out of five and were just 16 months apart.    We adored our dad and would sit on his lap at the same time. I remember the both of us putting our arms around his neck and saying in unison, "Aren't you glad we married you?"  Even though the decision for my parents to marry had happened 11 to 12  years before Sharon and I were a glimmer in anyone's eye, we still felt like somehow we had a say in the decision making process.    I remember that he loved the movie Gigi and would sing Thank Heavens for Little Girls to us which we loved - what little girl wouldn't?   I know that my older siblings memories of him are a bit more stern but I think by the time that we came along - he was getting his equilibrium.     I have two kids and have a hard time balancing - I can't imagine trying to do it with five especially if you had a short fuse which my father sometimes had.   

I remember my dad's hands as he held onto the steering wheel while we took summer trips with a 22 foot Holiday Rambler trailer in tow.   I remember him trying to connect the trailer to the hitch on the back of the white station wagon.    He always had the very undignified duty of hooking up the sewer from the trailer to the hole that was attached to the camping site we'd lodge at when we vacationed at Fort Wilderness which was the trailer resort at Disney World or the Red Coconut Trailer Park at Fort Myers Beach, as well as the electricity and the water.   The sweat would pour off his face as he would try to turn the wheel to get the hitch and the bumper to line-up so we could be on our way.    Once we were on the open road, my Dad's hands would relax and he would tap his thumbs on the steering wheel and would talk to my Mom while us kids would read or sleep in the back of the station wagon with the seats down and a flat area where you could move around freely.  Oh those crazy 60's and 70's when there were not those pesky car seats and seat belt laws.  A kid could be the king of the back seat - who needed safety when you were having fun?  

I also remember my Dad's hands when he would try to fix something around the house.    Being a handyman was not his strong suit and yet he wanted to be the go to guy for repairs so bad.    Grandpa Sanborn, his stepfather, was an expert craftsman but Dad just was not but he never was able to admit that until much later in life.   My mother would wait until he was out of town to get things fixed and then when he got back they were magically working again - that was our story and we stuck to it.   Luckily as my mother started working as a realtor, my dad took over the cooking and found out that he was pretty damn good at it.   My mother was a good cook but it was more of a means to get us fed not really anything she had a passion for so when my dad took over, she was more than happy to let him do it.  He would even do all the grocery shopping.  He loved finding new recipes and I remember him sitting in his easy chair with a cookbook in hand reading recipes and asking if he made something with spaghetti squash, would we eat it.   The first time I tried that stringy squash, I thought that is was an impostor for real honest to God pasta until I got used to it and now I love it.   I remember how my dad would fill out his grocery list and then rather than crossing out what he brought, he would tear the side of the list so that he knew he got it and didn't have to carry around a pen.   That always seemed so smart to me and it's a technique I used to this day when I grocery shop. 

As he got older, he would show his love more openly, giving hugs more freely and encouraged us to dream big.   I remember when I produced my first show on South Beach in Miami, my parents would let me use my grandmother's house while she was still in Boston as a rehearsal space.  My parents never felt that theater was a stupid pursuit - they loved it and took us every chance they could when we were kids.  So when I was out of college and decided to start my own improv group - The Eclectic Company - they were right there at almost every show and sometimes they were 40% of the audience.    When Max wanted to do his first movie Gentlemen in Black, my dad was happy to help and wanted to get the title of Best Boy on the credits because that title always tickled him when he saw it in the movies.   He even got a cameo as a prison guard and loved every moment of it.   When my brother Steve wrote his first book, Lying in State, my dad was there to help edit, proofread and offer anything he could to help.   The same thing when my sister Kathy started her consulting business for home healthcare and my brother Bill started as a disability consultant.   He was proud of my sister Sharon's photography.  He was there - ready to lend a hand to his kids - because above all else, he believed in us.   He would always ask if we needed money because it wouldn't do him any good once he was gone.   He was just that kind of guy.  

He loved taking us out to dinner or lunch - all his kids, his children's spouses, their kids, really anyone who wanted to go.  It could sometimes be a zoo but it felt like one big happy family as we navigated the brunch buffet at El Toritos at the Falls.    He really believed in us being close and being together.   But sometimes despite his and mom's best efforts, the kids get older, get married, move away and it's harder and harder to get the family to gather around the same table.   Sometimes their families have complications and things get in the way - pride, disagreements and the kids that he nurtured and loved so much just aren't as close anymore.  I think about my dad's hands and how they would try to fix any problems between us but sometimes love and a good lunch out on the town are not enough.   You see, the last time his kids were all together around the same table was the weekend of his funeral 10 years ago.  He had passed away suddenly from a heart attack.  As shocking as it was, I was grateful that it was so quick and he was not sick or in pain - my heart could not have handled that. It was a tough time, sure but at least the kids were there for each other talking about dad and all the things he did for us.   I remember being at the funeral home with the casket open while we joked about dad trying to fix things and for an instant I thought I saw a smile on his face.   I looked down at his hands which looked so much like mine and realized he would never hold mine again.    We went back to my brother Steve's house and talked some more about Dad.  We released balloons up to heaven with thoughts and prayers so he could read them with the angels - it was something that the grandkids could do to help them grieve for their grandfather.   My mother took a picture of us like it was the old days, but it wasn't really and never would be.  

I guess that Father's Day can bring stuff like this flooding back.   We're trying to do a family reunion to get all of us together for my mother's sake this summer.   She's not in the best health - Parkinson's has taken it's toll but having her kids together in one place would mean so much.   Being able to do that should be a slam dunk, but sometimes that distant baggage can get in the way and now one of us might not be able to be there.   I can imagine my father throwing up his hands and saying - "For God's Sake, sprout a pair and just do it - if someone doesn't like it too damn bad! You need to be there for your mother because the time will come when she'll be with me and you won't have the option - any issues you have you won't be able to work out!"   I hope that message is heard and we can all get together this summer and put our differences behind us.  

It's funny but this week I was going to write on the demise of bookstores and then I thought about Father's Day and my dad and all these ideas came flooding in.   It was like my father was channeling through me to get the message out to his kids who I hope will read this.  My hands are on the keyboard writing furiously - the hands that look like my dad's.   He wanted to be a writer too.   It's interesting that this week his is - inspiring me and asking me to write what needs to be said.   I've never appreciated my hands that much till now.  Today I'm glad that I have my father's hands.  


  1. Thank you Kelley for writing such a wonderful tribute to your father and posting it for everyone to read on Father's day! I cried through most of it! I hope you guys can get together this summer for a reunion of sorts. I know since our dad has passed that gatherings are not the same, but just as cherished! Love to you and your family!

    1. Thank you for your comment - I'm glad you liked it and here's hoping we all get together.