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He had Big Hands


He was blue collar. First job was working the docks on the Great Lakes up in Superior, Wisconsin. Yet, he spent most of his life working for the power company, first driving truck, then serving as Dispatcher coordinating the electric company’s fleet of service vehicles.


My Dad grew up in the depression. He was frugal, but not tight with his money. You could tell though that the memories of those years were still a part of him. Shaving cream cans, toothpaste, you name it, were stocked in cabinets with a sticker reading the date purchased. He couldn’t pass up a good sale. Hell, he had enough shaving cream to keep him going for 5 years! I was 15, my sister 13 when we moved into the first house my parents bought. Dad died in 1983.


I’ve looked at dozens of picture albums of Dad and Mom when they were young. I can see Dad was a player coming over to Minnesota from the shipping docks of Wisconsin, money in hand, new car and slick clothes. He looked like a cool dude, just the kind of man that would sweep Mom off her feet as she waited on him at the local café. Dad was 9 years older than her, the prime male age for courting younger women, women who were looking for a “good” man. Mom was prime bait having left the farm at 15 for the ‘city life’ and to get away from taking care of the 10 siblings grandma had popped out over 12 years. Nothing much else to do on the farm for folks other than raise crops and kids. I could just see how a naïve little farm girl, all of 17, would be swooned by the dashing ‘ladies man’ who held the state 100 yard dash record for so many years.


I remember my excitement waking to his big hands nudging my shoulder as I slept all snuggled up on the cot at my Dad’s sister’s house. We were on vacation, it was summer-time and Dad had promised that ‘us two guys’ would sneak downtown early that morning to see the famed statue of Paul Bunyon and his ox ‘Blue’. I was 6 years old, yet that memory is still burned in my brain. We snuck out of a house still asleep. I remember Dad, my hand in his big hand, tiptoeing down the hallway, down the steps, out the back door into the soft warm air of the breaking dawn. Just me and Dad. God, I felt important riding quietly down the sleeping street siting in the front seat next to Dad. We were going to see the legendary Paul Bunyon and his ox Blue…just me and Dad.


Mrs. Haxzel’s 3rd grade class is abuzz. We’re getting our last words in before the buzzer rings before we must get to our seats before she taps her ruler on the desk…her sign that we are late for class if our butts aren’t in our chairs. Buzzer rings, we rush to our seats. As she starts to take roll call, the classroom door creeks open and I see Dad’s face peering through the crack, his big hand motioning to Mrs. Haxzel. Moments later, she calls me outside the classroom. Walking into the hallway up to Mrs. Haxzel and Dad, they both have smiles on their face. Mrs. Haxzel says, “Jerry, your Dad would like to take you fishing this morning. It’s OK with me. Is that OK with you?” Excitement and anticipation fill me. I grab Dad’s big hand and we walk down the hallway of Washington Elementary and out to his car. This was my very first time going fishing, yet I don’t remember anything that day of fishing except walking down that school hallway, holding his big hand and feeling safe and comforted…going fishing, just me and Dad. That fishing knife he bought and gave to me as we drove down to the Red River that day 68 years ago lays in the cabinet of my living room. Don’t know why, but I will have that knife along side my ashes when that day arrives.


Dad and I were close when I was young. Memories, vivid as the pen in my hand, are etched in my being of our time together. Funny, yet in all my childhood memories of Dad, it‘s the snippets of time, not the event itself, that I remember the most…my Dad and I sneaking out of the house to go visit Paul Bunyan (can’t remember seeing Paul or his Ox Blue), Dad walking me down the hallway of my elementary school on that bright Friday morning to go fishing (can’t remember the fishing), and always, my hand being swallowed by that big, tender, warm, powerful paw of his.


He wasn’t a big man, maybe 5 foot, 9 inches tall at most, yet he had those big strong hands. When I was young, I remember checking every month or so to see if I could fit his black onyx ring on my finger. Finally, that day came when it fit…on my thumb! I think I was 15. Today, that ring is with me and I can almost wear it on my middle finger. He had big hands.


Something happened when I turned 16. By then I was getting full of myself, filled to the brim with piss and vinegar…know it all attitude. The young buck was strutting and our little house wasn’t big enough for the both of us (my view). Dad’s comforting and easy-going demeanour was now viewed by this young stud as wishy-washy, mealie mouse, almost weak-kneed. We fought, not physically, yet one night he did take a swing at me as I sat on the couch. I ducked and he hit the hanging lamp instead. It slammed against the wall, clanging back and forth. I laughed. He just walked away cursing. God, I was such a pain-in-the-ass. I may have laughed but I still remember that big hand swooshing over my head. He apologised the next day. I saw it as just more of the same…a weakness. Maybe, deep down, I was looking for him to kick my ass…to show me who was boss, which he was. Legends die hard you know.


During my late teen years, I didn’t look up to him. I took his calm demeanour and laissez-faire approach with Mom’s need, and occasional demands, as being weak. I can remember one day yelling at him, “Be a man…don’t always say ‘yes dear’ to Mom!”


As I grew older and had a family of my own, I found myself loving him more, but I still found it hard to talk about much of anything with him…likewise with him to me. It wasn’t until he started having heart problems and dizzy spells that I tried to come to terms with our cold war relationship. Having to pick Dad up (that once big strapping hunk of a man with those big hands) and carry him in my arms upstairs to his bed, served as an anecdote for stripping the layers of shit off me that covered the deep feeling of love I had for him. The real breakthrough for me came during his last trip to the hospital. I flew back home from California to be with him. At his bedside, we talked, we shared, we reminisced. The first day I was alone with him as the nurse had to leave the room. In parting, she instructed me to feed him ice chips if he got thirsty. When he came to, he motioned to me that he wanted water. As I lifted his head up from the pillow and fed him ice chips from the spoon, whatever shields or layers of shit that had, for so many years, created my separation from him melted away like the ice chips I put in his mouth. I was so overwhelmed with emotion by the simple act of feeding my Dad ice chips that I had to leave the room. Tears streamed down my face as I left the room.


Dad’s health went from worse to critical. In a matter of a few days the doctors were saying we’ll put him on the respirator and make him comfortable. Several days went by, him lying there…the sound of that respirator clicking on and off still haunts me. At one point, when he came too, he tried getting up, his eyes pleading with me to help him up and to take the respirator out of his mouth. I responded by gently nudging him down again. I wish to God I would have done it for him. That was his last attempt at liberation, his last try at being the man he was. And, I was the last person he asked something of and I couldn’t do it.


On his last day, Mom, nor my sister, could take being in the room that much. When Mom would join me, she’d just stand at the window, her back to Dad’s bed…probably looking through that window, out across town and to the many memories they shared together. They lived in this community for 40+ years so she was probably reliving experiences of Dad and her at every street corner she looked at and every street her eyes travelled down.


When the doctors came in and said it was time to turn the ventilator off, that it’s not helping anymore, Mom left me with Dad alone. Was too much for her. Pulling up a chair, I sat by his bed, holding his big hand, squeezing his hand as he left us.


Even in death, he had big hands. Every time I go back home, I go out where he lay’s and we talk…just me and Dad.

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Jerry Jonnson 2019

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