Not long ago, I went searching for a relic that I thought I had stored in the loft. I looked and looked, but I never found whatever it was that sent me on my quest. Instead, I may have found more.
As I rummaged through heaps of possessions—some treasured; some not—I found an elegantly framed photograph that Sister gave me decades ago. (In true Southern fashion—at least in my family—you never call the oldest daughter or the oldest son by their first names. Audrey has always been Sister; John, always Brother.) Sister gave all five siblings copies of the same photograph. Hers is lighted and hangs proudly and prominently on the wall that you see when you walk into her dining room. It’s a photograph of an old man—a very old man, head bowed, forehead leaning on clasped hands, and elbows resting on the dining room table. On the table, a loaf of bread, a bowl with spoon, a knife, and a cross-laden tome. At first glance, the photograph appears to be a copy of “Grace”—Eric Enstrom’s famous 1918 photograph of a Minnesota miner. You may have seen it in a home, a church, or a restaurant. I’ve seen it everywhere.
The photograph on Sister’s dining room wall is identical to Enstrom’s in every detail save two. First, the old man in her photograph has no beard. Second, the old man in her photograph is not the Minnesota miner. He’s a West Virginia coal miner. He’s my father.
I’m rapt by the photograph, and I wonder now—just as I did when Sister gave me my copy—how she ever convinced my father to pose for it. My father knew neither artifice nor airs. More, though, I ponder an overarching question, “Why did Sister have my father sit for such a photograph?”
I had never seen my father’s hands clasped in prayer as they are clasped in Sister’s photograph. My mother was the one who always said grace at our table, with all of us joining hands. It was not until late in life—perhaps just a few years before Sister’s photograph—that my father became a Christian. Certainly he would not have prayed at mealtime before then. By the time he became a Christian, I no longer lived at home. Sister, though, lived next door. Perhaps Sister had seen my father say grace.
I can’t say what Sister saw, but, as for me, I remember my father’s hands differently.
I remember my father’s hands as strong hands. When but a child—no more than four or five, so small that I had to stand on a kitchen chair to watch as he butchered a fresh chicken—I reached out to ask, “What’s that?” just as his cleaver—raised high in air—came thrusting down to sever the chicken breast. The cleaver could not stop. With equal speed, my father’s hand grasped my nearly severed right hand and held it in place until the doctor arrived. Today, the scar that spans my hand authenticates the strength of his: holding on, not letting go.
I remember my father’s hands as a coal miner’s hands—fiercely strong, calloused, rough, knuckle battered, and sooty from coal that could not be scrubbed away. Those hands shoveled coal for fifty years, never missing a day, never suffering injury. Those hands provided.
I remember my father’s hands as a gardener’s hands—perfectly patient, tenacious, self-confident, and unswerving as he pushed the plow, laying rows as straight as the crow flies. “Don’t look down,” he prompted, when the time came for him to teach me how to plow a row. “Stay focused on one thing at the end.” Those hands gardened longer than they mined, never missing a season, never losing a harvest. Those hands fed.
I remember my father’s hands as a carpenter’s hands—steady, certain, and capable as he remodeled our home and helped others remodel theirs, working with wood and wallboard, concrete and plaster. Those hands were untrained hands. “Just a jackleg carpenter,” he’d say of himself. Those hands built.
I remember my father’s hands as a thinker’s hands. His walking carriage, always—whether in coal miner’s “bank clothes” or in white starched shirt and khakis (always his at-home attire)—was with hands behind back, palms out, right resting in left.
Later in life—with our roles reversed: I, the caregiver; my father the one for whom I cared—I saw his hands as gentle hands. As age and illness weakened his body, softened his heart, and calmed his soul, I often held his hands in mine. One day, and I remember it vividly, I had a great curiosity—a compelling curiosity—to compare our hands, his and mine. I asked him to hold his hands out in front of him, and, as he did, I outstretched my hands to his, touching. Our hands were perfect matches—identical—his hands and mine.
And when my father lay in bed dying, I held his hands in mine until we both knew peace as death came with certainty and with finality.
The next day my mother and I made funeral arrangements. We both wanted understated elegance. The brushed, platinum-finished casket with a solid white silk lining—without tufting or design—seemed perfect.
When the evening of my father’s wake arrived, I walked with my mother toward the open casket where my father lay. Even from the far end of the chapel, we could see something on the lining of the raised casket lid—a design.
Drawing closer, we were both taken aback as we looked inside the casket lid. It was not what we had ordered. It was not a solid white silk lining without tufting or design.
Instead we witnessed—together—a pair of praying hands. To the right of the hands, the words, “May God hold you in the palm of His hand until we meet again.”
It was not what my mother and I had planned. It was not what we had ordered. And, yet, the praying hands were there, holding for me—and I believe for me alone—a lasting message.
My Father’s hands.
My father’s hands.
Now, as I look back, I see Sister differently. Now, as I look back, I see her photograph of my father differently. Being older than I, Sister knew my father longer—and better. Living closer to my father than I, she had spent more time with him. Being more blessed than I, Sister had more than enough grace to glimpse my father’s hands in ways that I would not see until the end.