When my father was five years old, he fell with a glass jar of peaches he was carrying and sliced open the wrist of his right hand. His father was a pastor in the poorest part of Nashville and had no insurance or access to medical care, so they took him to the closest hospital where the doctor on duty told them the nerve in my father’s right arm had been severed and would need reconnecting.
The operating surgeon was drunk and botched the job, leaving Dad with a right hand that had little strength and was shaped somewhat like a claw. He was able to hold a nail between his fingers, weakly shake a hand, and hook his thumb around the steering wheel of the car to drive but for all practical purposes his right hand was useless. He had to teach himself to write and do almost everything left-handed. Yet, when he talked about what had happened he put it this way: “My right hand is not a handicap. It is a fact of life. I can deal with that fact.”
My father learned to compensate early in his life. While he could not catch a ball, he discovered with his size 16 feet he could kick. He could not compete in many things that were normal for boys his age but he used his time to think. He learned to read people. He learned to speak and tell stories.
My father had nothing more than a high school education but he never stopped learning. He made comments and ideas on thousands of index cards. After his death, I went through his library and saw that the books he read were full of his almost indecipherable left-handed scrawls in the margins. Someone once told the essayist Charles Lamb that he made books loaned to him even more valuable by the margin notes he made before he returned them. That would have also been true for whatever Dad read. Even today, I treasure those marginal notes almost as much as the author’s text.
As much as anything Dad relished making and fixing things. What he really loved were the tools. He collected them partly because he needed the right tools to do the work with only the one hand and partly because he loved working with them. He found delight in patiently figuring out the essence of a problem and then coming up with a solution that was brilliant – and often incredibly ugly. What vexed us the most was it worked. He understood how things fit together. And when they didn’t there was duct tape.
Carol and I were cleaning out a closet after he died and came across a couple of things that were such powerful reminders of my father that we put them together in a shadow box. One is a small plaque Dad received from consulting with IBM that says, “Think.” The other is his red carpenter’s pencil. He always said, “Measure twice and cut once.” Countless times I have seen him measure and re-measure a plank with his T-square and then carefully draw the red pencil line across the cut. He built a barn, garage, patio, fences and walkways using the same precision and attention to the way things fit together. And always there was the sign to remind him (and me) to think before measuring and cutting. Because Mom and Dad grew up in poverty they had few treasures to pass on to their children so later in life they bought a number of expensive items they wanted to give as heirlooms. Of course, we appreciated the gesture but had no interest in those. We wanted the pencils, the T-squares, and the plaques – the things that carried our stories and our memories. It’s probably the same for you. None of us really want the china and silver as much as we want the mixing bowl. We want the tools they handled with such care. We want the common things that not only remind us of our family but of who we are as well. They make us whole and our memories intact. They fit us together. For anyone else this plaque and pencil would have no value at all, but these two items now hanging on the wall of my study remind me of my father’s character and his values – and what he overcame in life. They remind me to measure my words and thoughts. They remind me now more than ever to measure my days.
Art by Mary McCLeary