My father’s hands were the paws of a bear
Large and thick and calloused when I was young
Heavy and gnarled
With chunks of nails he cleaned with his pocket knife
He loved to trade knives at the factory.
I still have the knife as a memoriam.
His bulky biceps were too large to fit cleanly in his shirts
My mother would refit the sleeves and let them out
And he would roll them up.
When I was a child he placed his pack of cigarettes in the fold
When we’d make an occasional stop at the pool hall to run the table.
The bear-paw hands would work and weld and then
When he came home they would begin again
He washed them with lava soap and sat to eat
Crackers, liver cheese and potted meat
Sardines and cottage cheese
Or squirrel or a fish he caught in the fork.
Then the work would begin again.
Building, planting, inventing, repairing.
Hands that were productive
He never hit me, not once.
Never laid a paw on me.
I remember the hands hoeing, cutting, and stripping tobacco
Laying it to rest on its pallets and taking it to market.
I was there, I had a share in the work
The hands would hold the newspaper he would fold
Said the Bible was his One book, though he had a copy
Of Willie Mosconi’s billiard book tucked away in his drawer,
And the latest Broadman Sunday lesson book he would teach from.
I remember when he lost his ring finger at work
when it caught on a steel shelf
He went to the factory nurse in shock, they say
With the finger dangling on a foot long tendon.
He always had a time removing that wedding band
and had it stretched more than once.
Years later the bear paws remained,
minus a section of another finger
he’d cut off on a table saw.
The shiny one
Not the one he built from a wooden table, a motor and pulley
That he wouldn’t let me go near.
He’d make a fist
A clublike mallet of a fist
And clench more tightly as he watched boxing on the
Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.
I remember the theme song.
I remember he kept the newsclippings of Ingmar Johannson after a KO by Floyd Patterson. He stopped watching sports as he aged
Said he got too wrapped up in them-
it wasn’t good for his health.
I heard him sing, I heard him pray
He cried the day that I was saved
I was taken aback, had not expected that.
His raspy midpitched voice aquiver
Called me TomNeilTone,
Or NeilTomTone one or the other.
I knew what he meant. That was 1967.
The hands are easy to recall.
They carved the toys whistles
They made the bow and arrow and slingshots
They split the wood, rick upon rick,
They milked the cows and plowed the field.
Cut the Christmas tree and drew water.
Rolled his fags on a Bugler
Hammered nails and slung the blade.
They had strummed the old guitar hanging in the woodshed
When he had been quite young.
The one hung next to the frog gigs.
Taught me to hook a worm the right way,
Clean a fish and pat a dog.
I saw him shovel coal to take to the widow neighbor
I saw him pick up hitch-hikers and the neighborhood needy
Or the weak in mind and spirit
He would have compassion for these.
We’d visit the nursing home
Or his cousins regularly.
The hands that held the Rookbird.
The hands that stoked the fire
And shoveled ash.
That pegged the plants
And dowsed the wells- he never missed-
Lord help me to remember that voice.
The hands are easy.