From My Father's Hands

         My father’s hands were things of magic. 

He came to this, his adopted country, during the massive immigration boom of the 60’s.  So far back that a Thatcher was only someone who might fix your roof, my dad caught a whiff of what the United Kingdom would become in the approaching decades and tipped his hat to the land of his fathers and packed his bags for greener pastures.

He apprenticed as a tool and die maker but definitely had the smarts to do anything he set his mind to.  I think the prospect of shaping something as rigid and unyielding as metal – making it bend to his will, shaping it to his vision – appealed to him.  He had a mercurial mind, untiring hands and a love of solving practical puzzles.  Tool-making was balance for him: a mental challenge that kept those active, hungry hands busy.

I remember those hands as gigantic but I am assured that they were much smaller and finer than the ones that type these words.  I suppose my faulty recollection can be blamed on my earliest memory of my dad.  It’s just a flash, the merest snippet of memory that lingers in my brain somewhere between the texture of a snugly blanket and the scent of bubbling oatmeal with brown sugar.   In this haunt of my earliest childhood I am tottering by his side, unsteady steps in hand-me-down shoes.  Those shoes are scuffed red leather with patterns of tiny holes punched through them.  They are open at the top with a narrow leather strap and a little tin buckle.  The shoes are one of two points of vivid detail.  Everything is in the blurred tunnel vision of distant memory, the edges grainy and indistinct as a Civil War photograph -  except for those shoes and my father’s hand.  Barely encircled by my chubby little fist are the index and middle fingers of his left hand.  Even now I can feel the roughness of the skin, the scars and the calluses.

Those same industrious hands that routinely bent metal to his will were equally at home thrust within the soil.  If ever there was a green thumb, it resided on one of my father’s hands.  His gardens were legendary.  It seemed he need only brush his fingertips along a stalk or cup a flower in his palms for a plant to thrive.  I have another memory of him, shirtless in the summer sun, surrounded by cauliflower plants, climbing peas and broccoli.  All lush.  All waist high.

It was, I suppose, his gift with all green things, coupled with memories of the Welsh countryside of his youth, that made the purchase of the farm I grew up on inevitable.  The farm had pasture, crop fields, a woodlot and a gentle stream that divided the lower third of the land from the top.  The buildings were over one hundred years old.  The house was run down and in need of work.  The barn was pristine.  In short, it was sixty-five acres of aspiring gentleman farmer heaven.

Over the years we raised everything on that farm.  My dad tried his hand with swine, sheep, horses, cattle (beef and dairy), goats, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys.  I have horrific childhood memories revolving around the slaughter of various poultry and fowl but that’s another story, best reserved for a therapist.  This particular tale is about one of the permanent livestock fixtures on the farm – our beloved sheep.

Our first sheep, the great grand dame of them all, fittingly was named Vickie.  She was a gift to my father one Victoria Day from our Yugoslavian shepherd neighbour.  She was scrawny and a triplet.  The shepherd had neither the time nor the patience to bottle-feed a lamb with little prospect of thriving.  He had heard of the tool and die maker who had moved in down the road without a scrap of farming experience and decided to give him a housewarming gift of sorts.  More of a barnwarming gift, I suppose.

Our neighbour introduced himself and handed my dad a corrugated shipping box.  Inside were three rubber nipples, a quarter bag of powdered milk and the bleating, brown-eyed Vickie.

My delighted father immediately invited him in for a bottle of beer.  When the beer was drained, he rinsed the bottle, prepared the milk, filled the bottle and fitted the nipple.  He took the bottle in one hand and the tiny ewe in the other and went outside.  He lowered himself into the vinyl and aluminium lawn chair that faced the road.  Gently rubbing the lamb’s chin with his ring and little finger, he guided the bottle with the remaining fingers of his right hand into the lamb’s mouth.  She may have been weak and scrawny but held in my father’s hands that lamb laid into the bottle with unbridled relish.

Vickie thrived and lived to a ripe old age.  She, like dozens of other bottle-fed lambs who would come and go over the years on our farm, was always enamoured with the sight of an amber brown beer bottle.  Even when she was a great-great-great-great grandmother she still hobbled over, blind in one eye, and nuzzled my dad with affection if ever he decided to enjoy a cold bottle of beer out in the pasture.

Our lambs came in the late winter and early spring.  The odd year might see a January lamb but the end of February and beginning of March were frantic times on the farm.  Not only could we look forward to a litter or three of piglets but the lion’s share of our lambs were bound to drop before the ice broke free of our creek during the mid-March flood.

As April warmed the air and the stirrings of fresh grass appeared in the pasture fields, the mercury would finally edge over that mysterious mark only my father seemed to know.  Walking the fence lines, pliers and wire in hand, he would mend any damage the winter snows had done.  Returning to the barn, he blocked off aisles and opened pens so that there was only one route to follow.  Finally, he threw open the heavy door at the back of the barn and leapt out of the way.

An avalanche of fleece spilled into the barnyard as the flock, too long confined within stone walls, bounded to greet the awakening season.  If there is anything that sings the annual renewal of life like the sight of a stiff-legged lamb springing impossibly high at its first breath in an open field, I don’t know what it is.  Ducklings and bunnies be damned; it is the lamb who personifies Spring.

It was one such spring, early in April, most of our Saturday morning chores done, that my father and I sat on the front porch of our house.  My dad relaxed in that same battered old lawn chair and I reclined on the step at his feet.  In his hand he held a massive and steaming mug of tea.  I sat with a small tin cup of milk.  We were silent, soaking in the sight of the ewes and lambs in our front pasture field as they enjoyed their first taste of the outdoors.  Every so often a particularly exuberant bound or a spectacularly clumsy landing would elicit a spontaneous burst of laughter from the pair of us.  The laughing would fade into quiet enjoyment until the next comical antic would set us off again.

My dad was just draining the last dregs of his tea when the Cadillac appeared over the bump in the road where it ran over the railroad tracks.  We watched as the car approached along the northern boundary of our land and slowed to a crawl as it neared the field filled with  frolicking lambs.  The sedan stopped and stayed there for the next four or five minutes.

Now here’s a universal truth.  Travel anywhere in the world you choose and you will see the same reaction.  All farmers will stop whatever they’re doing and pay heed when someone in a strange vehicle appears to be taking undue interest in their land or livestock.  Farmers are fiercely proud of their stock but hugely suspicious of anyone looking too closely.  My dad and I were no different.

As the Cadillac crept along the road and turned into our driveway my father rose to his feet and casually walked out to greet whoever might be behind the wheel.  The car was sleek and black and was easily the finest automobile I had encountered in my entire life.  The pristine finish was freshly washed and the lack of even a hint of a stone chip told me that ours may have been the first gravel road this car had ever seen.  

Unlike our ancient Cutlass Supreme, the Cadillac’s door swung silently open without the need to lift the door a bit and jiggle the handle just so.  Into that Saturday morning stepped the largest man I had ever seen.  I’ve seen bigger since, but not often.  He wore a pair of dark wool trousers and I can still see the glare of the April morning sun reflected in his flawless, polished shoes.  On his hands he wore what I would later discover are known as “driving gloves” but for the longest time I simply assumed that the wealthy, for some reason unfathomable to we the poor, cut the knuckles out of their gloves.  His leather car coat hung off him like a tarpaulin.

This stranger towered over my dad.  Admittedly, not so great a feat, for my father was a wiry little Welshman, but tower over him he did.  He tugged of the gloves and stowed them in one of the coat’s enormous pockets.  He extended a bejewelled hand.  There was more gold on that man’s little finger than my parents would ever have.  My father shook the big man’s hand.

“Lovely day,” he said with a tilt of his head.  “Is there anything in particular about my little farm that piques your interest?”

“Good day.” 

Later my dad informed me that the man spoke with a thick Greek accent.  All my young ears heard were the terrifying tones of Bela Lugosi’s classic Dracula which I had watched late one night without my parent’s knowledge.  On such a sunny morning I expected him to burst into flame at any second. 

“I am looking at your lambs.”

My dad smiled.  “They’re great fun, aren’t they?  It’s the first day it’s been warm and dry enough to let them out.  All that energy – Love to bottle it.”

The Greek’s face was expressionless.  “Easter is coming.”

“Yes.  Next weekend, I believe.  Hope it’s half as nice as this weekend.”

“You are not understanding me.”

The smile on my father’s lips wavered for just an instant.  “To be fair,” he replied, “you’ve only said…what…fifteen…sixteen words.  Not that much really for me to glean your intentions, is it?”

“Easter is coming.  I am wanting lamb for Easter.  To be eating.  Your lamb.”

“Wha-?!”  My dad laughed then gawked at the man.  “You’re serious?  You can’t be!  Look at them, man!  They’re babies!”

The big Greek’s face remained blank as he reached into the coat pocket that didn’t hold his gloves.  He dug around until his hand settled on something and pulled it out.  His ham-sized fist completely enveloped whatever it was.  Unfurling his fingers, he revealed a weighty roll of banknotes secured with a greasy, brown elastic band.

My dad tried to play it cool but I saw him swallow at the sight of so much money in one place.  These were the days of shaky governmental monetary policy and the age of outlandish interest rates.  As luck would have it my parent’s mortgage had come due just in time for them to hop onto the fiscal roller-coaster at 17 ½ percent.  After cashing in my dad’s life insurance they were making the mortgage payments.  Just barely.

The Greek removed the elastic band and peeled off a couple of twenties.  “I told you I want lamb.  How much?”

“Come back in a couple of months, mate.” 

“Easter is next week.  I want lamb now.  How much?”  He peeled another twenty from the roll. 

Somehow the smile never left my dad’s face.  “Too little.  There’s no meat.”

Another twenty came off the roll.  Next month’s mortgage  payment rested in his hand.  He smiled.  “I pay good money for lamb.  Even for little one.”

“I’d be happy for you to come back in a couple months’ time.  More than happy, in fact.  It’s just that I don’t sell babies.”

Another two twenties came off the roll.  He could have bought a half dozen lambs for what he had in his hand.  The money obviously meant nothing to the big Greek but, at this point, it had ceased to mean anything to my father, as well.

My dad took both his hands and gently rolled the Greek’s fingers closed around his money.  Still smiling, he stepped around the big man and opened the door of the Cadillac.

“Keep your money, mate,” he said as he placed a hand on the Greek’s massive shoulder and guided him to the car.  “I don’t sell babies.”

The Greek settled behind the wheel without a word.

“If you’re still looking for lamb there’s a chap over on the next concession.  He’ll have some December and January lambs that are probably fit to go, but if you’re looking for anything younger, you’re wasting your time.  He doesn’t sell babies, either.”

My dad closed the door and gave the roof of the car two gentle pats.   The Greek backed out of our lane, my father smiling and waving the whole time.  The Cadillac drove toward the next concession, never to be seen again.

There’s a saying.  Everyone has their price.  I guess that’s the principle that the Greek was working on as he peeled more and more banknotes off that obscenely fat roll.  Keep stacking up those twenties and eventually the other guy will grab the money and run.  This tactic had obviously worked for him in the past, but my dad stepped in and cut the game short.  How much money was the Greek was willing to part with for a single little lamb that day?  We’ll never know. 

If everyone has a price, what was my father’s?

Years later I might have caught a glimpse of my father’s price.  I can’t be sure.  At the time I wasn’t thinking clearly and if my dad’s quicksilver mind was functioning at all it was through layers of pain and sickness and morphine.  The cancer had been rapid and had worn away the active, carefree man I knew in a short matter of weeks.  Toward the end there were few words, but his eyes spoke for him.  They were filled with fear, lots of fear.  You have no idea how deep is the pit of your stomach until you have met genuine fear in the eyes of your father.  But through it all, even against logic or prognosis, there was still hope.  At the worst of times it was a diminished thing, a tiny spark in a vast darkness – a bit of cork floating in an endless murky ocean.  It was a glimmer, overwhelmed by the grim reality of the situation, but that glimmer lived, even as my father died. 

Did he have a price, my dad?  I think he did, but it had nothing to do with anything as crass as money nor as splendid as a spring lamb.

On that spring day though, so many years ago, my father didn’t have a price.  Not one the Greek could find, leastways.   Was it difficult for him to turn down so much money?  Of course it was.  He once told me it was one of the hardest things he’d ever done, considering our financial circumstances at the time.  He summed up his decision by giving me his view on stewardship.

“What else could I have done?” he said with a characteristic shrug, “That Greek might have piled money to the moon and the answer couldn’t have changed.  There really was no other choice.  After all, they were only babies.”

After the Cadillac disappeared from view he turned, ran his fingers through his hair and let out a sigh.

“That guy sure didn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer, did he, son?”  He walked over and put his arm around my shoulder.  “Come on.  Let’s put these cups away and clean those pens, okay?”

After depositing our mugs in the kitchen sink, we went back into that April morning and passed through the gate to the barnyard. 

“Dad,” I asked.  “Why did that huge man want to eat our baby lambs?”

“Why, indeed?  Don’t know.  Hungry, I suppose.”  

I felt my dad’s hand on my shoulder as we walked.  I looked up at him and saw him smiling.

“That sure was a big pile of money he had in his pocket, wasn’t it, Dad?” I asked.

The smile never wavered.  “It surely was,” he said.  “It surely was.”




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