My grandfather went to college on a basketball scholarship. I was told that he could palm a basketball in one hand. I never actually saw him do this, but I do remember his hands very well. I used to sit on his lap while he held my little hands, still dimpled and plump, in his own. His fingers were long and graceful. The veins stood out in them and the fingers tapered. He would hold my thumb and tell me just how much a marvel it was and about all the potential a human being carried in her hand just because of the opposable thumb.
I recall Grandpa's hands cutting apples with a pocket knife. I never actually wanted to eat those apples because I was a fussy child and could not be sure just how clean that knife was. But I ate them anyway even though they tasted funny and were unpleasantly warmed by his hands. I knew, even then, that this awkwardness was somehow intrinsic to his personality. He was shy and had a speech impediment. His knees were bad and made him bow-legged. His clothes were worn and stained with paint. He always smelled of paint thinner. He never said much, but then words could never have measured up to the love he had for all us kids. I ate those warm apple slices for the same reason I let him tuck blankets around me when I rested on the couch at his house. It could right smack dab in the boiling heat of summer and Grandpa would tuck me in as if he feared the arctic winds would tear me away from him. I'd lie there and sweat under a pile of afghans content in the knowledge that no one loved me more than he did.
I held my grandfather's hands as we walked through the village near his paint shop. One day an old woman saw him with my sister and me. We were sporting short haircuts and wearing rugged play clothes. She complimented him on his grandsons. Grandpa didn't say anything to her, but he was deeply offended. "Stupid old biddy," he muttered to himself as we continued walking. It was one of the only uncharitable things I ever heard him say-- and he said it out of love for us.
Grandpa's paint shop was housed in an old stone building that had once been the blacksmith's shop. I loved to visit him there and watch him work. I loved to look at his inventory and browse through the wallpaper and paint sample books. An ancient glass case on his counter held even more ancient Indian arrow heads and other treasures. The windows behind the counter were full of African violets, my grandmother's contribution to the shop decor. In the back rooms were the giant paint mixers (one for red barn paint and one for white house paint). They were each large enough for a man to fit inside and Grandpa told us that they were cobblestoned by "midgets." It was a lost art because, he said sadly, there simply are "no more cobblestoning midgets."
I think this was a joke. Although it may not have been. You could never tell with him. He spoke little and laughed even less frequently. Not that he was serious. His eyes often twinkled when he was pulling someone's leg. We didn't always catch it though. He told us about hill cows with two legs shorter on one side so they wouldn't roll down the hills and about the little man who ran ahead of the car to turn on the lights on all the roadside reflectors.
Mostly Grandpa was pretty quiet and serious. He didn't laugh or speak loudly even when he was joking. I never heard him yell. To visit with him was to sit quietly by his side. When the rest of the family (and there are lots and lots of us) gathered, he would retire to another room. It wasn't that he didn't like to be near us, but I think that he was so quiet and shy a person that it overwhelmed him to be in the center of things. One or two of us would go in and sit with him. He was not chatty and never boastful, but he would sometimes ask one of us to tell him about our accomplishments. In those times, he beamed with pride.
Grandpa always had a fine sense of the beauty of small things. He would often comment about the way an object felt in one's hand. He especially liked the smooth, heaviness of water-worn rocks. There were piles of these rocks, plain, speckled, and striped all over his house. They are all over my house now- a great inheritance of lake stones. One of my greatest treasures is a rock my grandfather picked up on the shores of Lake Ontario. It is a smooth, black stone my grandfather called his "worry stone." When I was a young woman, he took it from his pocket and placed it in my hands. He told me that his worries were over and mine were just beginning. This turned out to only be partly accurate. My worries, truly, were just beginning, but his were hardly at an end. His last years were marked by anxiety and pain.
I remember Grandpa's hands at the end of his life. He seemed always to be reaching for something that wasn't there. "What do you want, Dad?" his kids would say. His face looked haunted and confused as he dropped his trembling hand then reached again. He had dementia for five years before he passed away. Those were hard years for us. Dementia is surreal and unkind, an agony that an entire family must endure together. I think of the story of a drop of ice water in the fires of hell. Moments of lucidity in the midst of dementia are a bit like that. I can think of few things more precious and I am glad, very glad, that we could share those last difficult years with him. At one point, at the beginning of the long good-bye, he could not speak so we put a pencil in his hand and with his long, graceful, and trembling fingers he scrawled the words, "You are my family. You are my life." But we already knew that. He may never have said the words, but he didn't need to. His whole life told us.