*Another from the archives. I think 1987. Not sure.
Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I went to wash my face and hands. Underneath the warm running water, I flipped around a slowly diminishing bar of Ivory soap in a ritual I learned from my father. I remember leaning against his side as a small boy, somewhere between 7 and 7.30 in the mornings of my youth and watching him perform this magic act. The water ran like silver, fluid and bright, sending sparks flying from the porcelain below. His hands squeezed the water as if it were putty, a master of the moment, gathering soap and rinsing in a series of motions I hoped one day to perform with hands as important as his own.
I loved his hands; for although his body was slight, his hands held the power that passed on everything he wanted to pass on to his children. At three I watched my first baseball game in his hands. At six I was cradled between his arms as he held his hands over mine, gripping an oversized basketball which together we launched toward a too high hoop. At seven we went to buy a baseball glove, set ourselves up in the front yard, had our first catch.
There was great form to those moments, an unspoken reverence for the exchange that first embodied a physical quality not specific to any singular sport or child. We--my sisters, brother and I--learned how to handle basketballs, baseballs, golf clubs, bowling balls, footballs, shovels, rakes, mowers--with the perfect execution of one's form earning respect. To not perform correctly, however, hardly brought penalty. Rather, we gained the reward of more teaching. "No, no, this way," he'd gently instruct, taking one of us in his arms to teach proper grip or follow-through. A pedagogy of the hands. In the same manner, we all learned how to drive.
At some point in each of our early teen years, when one of us was in the fortunate position of being beside him in the front seat, he'd tuck his arm behind our back, pull us to his side and ask, "Want to drive?" It seemed no greater proposal had even been made in the course of human history and the offer was treated accordingly. This was the final rite of passage between his hands and mine since by twelve I had learned most sports, knew how to write, had been taught some boxing basics, and could respectfully shake any man's hand. The wheel of Dad's car was the last frontier. With his right arm around me and his left hand gently resting on the bottom of the wheel, his words guided my hands as I maneuvered the car down a country road. It was a Saturday morning and we were on our way to a round of golf.
Tall, pale yellow grass shook in the wind to the right of the road and in the middle, a thick, bright line of sun bordered our left. I steered in a steady ellipse between the two borders--sometimes crossing the median line and occasionally stirring up the gravel on the right. It was the line on the hood of the car that saved me. Keeping the hood's center aligned with the middle of the road held the key, he advised. So while the a.m. radio played Benny Goodman and Dad relaxed enough to rest his left arm on the edge of the open window, I took over.
His left hand dangled a cigarette while his right hand rested on the car seat behind my head. In a moment of confidence I glanced in his direction. He was staring straight ahead, looking down the road. "I heard Benny Goodman play in Milwaukee just before I went into the service," he said, while leaning forward to turn up the sound. I imagined him in baggy army gear--with a mustache in France, clean shaven in the Philippines, at a moment in time I'd only know in history books. The wind blew back his hair and he flicked his cigarette down to the pavement below. It was then that I first realized my dad had a life that had nothing to do with me.
This was not a partial realization; rather, it was radical truth. And quite appropriately, seeing him differently came at the perfect time. Perched on the edge of the great leap toward becoming a man, it was only right that I began to see more of the man in him. He seemed vulnerable that day, maybe because the wheel of the car was in my hands; maybe because of a certain distance in his eyes, fixed on the diminishing road ahead. In any case, one cannot escape the fact that on that day he was handing over power to me.
Only one other time had I seen him so vulnerable, which was when he buried his father. His tears at the funeral didn't shock me as much as the look of fear on his face at the cemetery when my grandma threw herself on the ground. On the hard, cold earth beneath a tree with no leaves, there were things greater--and in more control--than my father. His hands, though still strong, would pull no body from the grave, working magic wonders. In the bitterness of the day, he did all he could to use them for his own comfort, rubbing them together to stay warm.