MY FATHER'S HANDS

 

Outside, the day was miserable, cloudy and wet. Vincent was Below, attending to his responsibilities there, and the four children had scattered, each seeking his own form of recreation.It was, Catherine had decided, a perfect day to do a little spring cleaning. Normally, housework was something she detested, but occasionally she found herself in just the right mood for it. Today was one of those days. Feeling restless and daydreamy, she could let the housework occupy her hands while leaving her imagination free to roam.

When the children were small, she and Vincent had managed to keep the house liveable with extensive help from older tunnel kids. In exchange for housekeeping, child care and cooking, Catherine paid all college expenses. It was an arrangement which had worked out well for all concerned, but now, the only kids she was putting through college were her own.

While they had taken responsibility for keeping the house more or less tidy and, on the whole, did a pretty good job, their cleaning was limited to basics like dusting tabletops and vacuuming floors. Recently Catherine had begun to notice that the books and knickknacks in the study were becoming decidedly dusty and was determined to do something about it.

She began with things on the tables, running a damp cloth over each of the glass eggs in her collection, before going on to lamps, candlesticks, and other ornaments scattered throughout the room.

Next she tackled the books, and she cheated on them. At least, she thought with an inward smile, her father's housekeeper would have thought it cheating. Hannah had believed that the only proper way to dust books was to remove each one, wipe it carefully with a soft cloth, and replace it. Once, when cleaning the study was an annual all-day family project, Catherine, Vincent and the children had done it that way. With the literally hundreds of books lining the shelves in the study, that meticulous process could take an entire day, so Catherine used a vacuum with a small attachment that could reach to the back of the crammed shelves. Only some of Vincent's more fragile books merited for individual treatment. Even this way, it was a task that took the better part of a morning.

As she worked, she let memory take her back to the last time the family had cleaned the study together. It had been in the summer, she remembered, so Charles was home from school.

 

* * * * *

 

Sensing a lack of industry, Catherine looked around to find she was the only one actually working. Vincent perched against the edge of his desk, a worn leather volume open in his hands. At the other end of the room, Jacob was similarly engaged. Lost in thought, Charles stared out a window. Evan had wandered over to the chessboard, examining a game in progress, and Vicky lay on the floor with a dustcloth clutched between bare toes, waving it listlessly in the general direction of the nearest shelf.

Hands on hips, Catherine began with Vincent, fixing him with a green-eyed glare of indignation. After a moment he looked up. Guiltily, he laid his book aside and turned a stern, fatherly eye on the rest of the room. Vicky noticed first, whispering a warning to her brothers; in moments all were hard at work again.

* * * * *

 

Catherine smiled at the memory. Their burst of energy hadn't lasted long that day, but eventually the job had been completed. Somehow, getting the whole family together at one time seemed impossible these days, so it was just as well that Evan had thought of using the vacuum. It made the job easier.

When the books were done, Catherine moved to the pictures that adorned the one wall not taken up by bookshelves, dusting the frames and cleaning the glass. Each picture was precious in its own way. Her parents smiled at her from a posed studio portrait; from another frame, her mother laughed at something unseen. There was a picture of her father and herself at age twelve; another, her father's favorite of her, was from her college days, taken by her friend Nancy. Father's cherished photograph of himself and his wife Margaret on the day of their wedding hung beside Catherine's own parents' wedding portrait. Devin was there, in two or three candid shots, along with one or two of her from recent years, but the rest were of the children.Some of those photographs were old, out-dated, and she mused that it was past time to replace them with newer ones and relegate the old ones to photo albums. There was, she remembered, an entire stack of prints that Evan had made in his basement darkroom still lying in a drawer of her desk. When she had completed the dusting, she took down a number of frames, spreading them across her desk.

Replacing the pictures was a slow process because she stopped with each one, remembering when and where the old picture was taken and repeating the process with the new print. Some of the memories made her smile; some made her wistful; one made her laugh out loud.

At last only one frame still held its original contents and she picked it up tenderly. Instead of a photograph, this frame, a double one hinged in the middle, held yellowing sheets of lined notebook paper. At the top of the left-hand sheet, in careful, newly learned cursive, was a name and a date. She smiled, remembering...

 

* * * * *

 

"Mrs. Chandler? I'm Anne Dylan."

Smiling, Catherine offered her hand to Jacob's fourth grade teacher. "I'm pleased to meet you. Jacob talks about you all the time."

"I know it's almost a cliche, but he's truly a joy to have in class, Mrs. Chandler. He's bright, well-mannered, and loves to learn."

"I'm glad. He's not always like that at home," Catherine said. When she left the house to come here for her scheduled parent-teacher conference, all four children had been in the study, building a fort out of cushions and blankets. Needless to say, it was a task that couldn't be accomplished quietly and Jacob's shrieks were no less piercing than those of his siblings.After they discussed Jacob's progress for a few minutes, Ms. Dylan reached for a folder. "I always keep one special thing to give each parent at our conference," she explained. "For artistic kids, it's usually a special art project. For mathematical kids, it's a math test..."

Catherine nodded, understanding that the paper she was about to be shown would reflect something Ms. Dylan considered one of Jacob's talents.

"One of the things I most admire about Jacob is his imagination," the teacher went on. "A few weeks ago, I gave my students an assignment to write a short essay about someone in their family. Most of them write what you'd expect a nine or ten year old to write... they tell what their parents do for a living, maybe what they look like..."

Catherine nodded again, wary now that the subject of family had come up.

Ms. Dylan drew a sheet of paper from her folder. "Jacob has written something that I find beautiful and imaginative. Most children would never think of doing something like this, and he's done it extremely well. He must love his father very much."

Catherine had been growing progressively colder with each word. She was fighting panic, and incoherent thoughts like 'How many times have I told him...' and 'When I get home, I'm going to kill him...' shot through her mind before reason reasserted itself. Whatever Jacob had written, the teacher obviously suspected nothing but a child's active imagination. It was going to be okay. She reached for the paper held out to her...

 

* * * * *

 

With a smile, Catherine touched the glass over Jacob's name. The pencil marks had faded with time, but the words could still be read and the sentiment came through as clearly as ever. With a sigh and a shake of her head, she took the frame, essay and all, and put it back in its place of honor behind Vincent's desk.

 

 

JACOB'S ESSAY

Jacob Chandler 10-2-03

My Father's Hands

 

My father's hands are big, much bigger than mine. My mother says they're beautiful, but I don't think so they have too much hair. My grandfather says my fathers hands are hands to trust and depend on.Charles says my father's hands are gentle. My brother Evan says they are strong. My sister says they're warm and she likes to hold them.

When he's proud of me, he puts his hand on my shoulder and it feels good. When I dissappoint him, he puts his hand on my shoulder, too, and it makes me want to try harder. Sometimes he rubs his hand across the top of my head and messes up my hair because it makes me laugh.

His hands are the best for putting on a bandage because it doesn't hurt at all. My father's hands are love. I think my mother's right after all. My father's hands are beautiful.

 

THE END