His Hands

The paint was gliding easily onto the canvas, leaving my mind free to wonder. Or for my eyes just to gaze off into nothing. It gets like that after a while, like I’m not physically engaged in the act of making this painting, that I’m just there to witness it only, or failing that, just to hold the brush.

So I was standing there gazing off into nothing when my hand swung passed my eyes. I looked at my hand, watching the tiny flexing muscles, the fingers curving and stretching. The subtle undulations of the wrist. The small wrinkles and twists of the skin, stretched over the muscle and bone.

I stopped the painting. My eyes stayed glued to my hands. I put the brush down and opened up one hand with the other, running thumb along finger, tracing the lines. It all seemed so strangely familiar.

1.

My grandfather shuffled into the room. He had taken, at this later stage in his life, to filling the blanks between spaces; floating around and outside of in, his presence slowly diminishing. The empty space around sat ready to engulf him. And we all knew that soon, it would. But not that day. That day his hand swung into vision and I noticed him sit down on an armchair just a small way from where I was.

This move would not seem that strange to the casual observer; all he did was come in and sit down. But there are conventions within family interaction, certain ways of being. The family is like a train, with all of its carriages and couplings, pushing its way down the tracks. To someone who has never seen a train before and is not familiar with its ways, they might not find it strange to see it veer off the tracks and start rocketing along down the road.

So in he veered and down he sat. I looked around the otherwise unoccupied room. Had he come to talk to me then? He was staring at the computer which was right next to him and regarding it as if it were some sort of alien artefact. There was not a chance that he had not seen nor heard of computers before, but at that point, if he had, he certainly wasn’t letting on.

But then his fascination with the computer ended as quickly as it had begun and his hand was soon reaching out for the small plastic box which sat next to it.

He held the box in his hands, turning it and examining its dark plastic casing from several different angles. The whole scene seemed wrong, those hands where meant for wood. The plastic clashed with the tones and grooves of his old smoky skin.

After studying the case for a few moments he gradually applied a small amount of upward pressure on the lid and it swung open. I could see that in his head a small mystery had just been solved and now his prize lay nestled in his lap – a small collection of green and black and blue and grey disks all lined up inside the box. The disks and my Grandpa regarded each other for a moment.

He slid his hand out from underneath the plastic casing and ran a finger along the disks as if refining his investigation. Choosing the right order and number of disks to take out seemed to follow a rigorous criterion, much too difficult for my young mind to decipher. He was placing them in turn on the arm of his chair, where they sat in a growing pile that leant at a very slight angle and threatened to fall at any moment. He soon pulled out a small pile of disks and separated them in his hands. He placed each one on to the pile and repeated the procedure until the box was empty. It seemed that his selection criterion might not have been as rigorous as first thought.

When he had finished he had constructed quite a large little tower of disks. And if not put down to complete chance it was surely a great testimony to my Grandpa’s magnificent engineering skills that the teetering tower never toppled over completely.

He soon started taking the disks off of the top one by one and laying them out next to his craftily constructed yet diminishing tower until the arm of the chair was lined with little plastic disks like paving stones. He prodded and poked at them with his finger, fixing the little gaps forming between them, and in the process creating what looked like a little man, skipping along the path.

It wasn’t until he had started to line the other arm that my grandma entered the room.

My Grandma’s name is Val but my sisters and I call her Nana Smut. This always brings a chuckle into her mouth. We call her that because she occasionally lets tiny little obscenities escape her lips. When it happens it’s like something has just toppled out that wasn’t meant to and she flaps her hand up to her mouth and goes, “oh!” like she has just managed to offend herself. But if you keep looking, for just a bit longer, as that hand comes down you’ll see the slightest hint of a smile. Nana Smut’s little slip ups are these naughty little jokes, like Roald Dahl’s revolting rhymes. She actually doesn’t like swearing. She also doesn’t like foreigners.

Val was halfway across the room before she saw what Grandpa’s hands were up to. She stopped, turned and looked at him. He didn’t seem to notice her and neither of them seemed to notice me.

And so he kept tiling and she kept watching him and I was watching both of them; her watching him tile and him tiling.

And after a few moments Val decided to break the silence.

“Burney? What are you doing?” She said, in bewilderment.

Grandpa looked up and, as if in direct response to the tone of her voice, his childish inquisitiveness and naivety melted from his features and was replaced with the strong chiselled face of the past. He was once again that man of authority; firm and straight. Without a moment’s hesitation he responded in that gruff gravely voice.

“What the bloody hell do you think I’m doing?”

And that, it seems, was explanation enough.

2.

Auntie Ed had a secret.

Ed is my Grandpa’s sister. She is an enormously large woman rendered almost completely immobile by her tree trunk legs; the stubby toes of which peak out from underneath the red and blue veiny flab of her ankles. There is no hint of a foot. It is impossible to picture Auntie Ed without a cloud of smoke gathering around her head, trickling out of an excretion from her king sized pack of holidays. Somehow, against all odds, and in defiance of nature, medical science, and all that we know about life and it’s supposed fragility, Auntie Ed is still with us. Still blowing smoke from her long cracked smile.

When Auntie Ed was less of an auntie and more just a fifteen year old girl she, without bothering to ask her parents, went searching for her birth cirtificate. Eventually she found it in amoungst her mothers things and upon finding it, found something else as well. Something that later her mother would make her swear to take to her grave, to never tell anyone, particularly, to not tell her brother Burney, and later, specifically, to not tell his wife, Val. Ed agreed, to a certain degree. She kept the secret to her mothers grave.

The secret was, quite simply, that their late father was actually not there father at all.

However, their mother having lived to a ripe old age had clung onto that secret until my Grandpa himself had already received his golden handshake.

Acompanying the news was also the news that his real father, a rich farmer named Mr Pepper, had died when he was just 2 years old. Squashed between two rumbling train carriages couplings.

I picture my Grandpa discovering this, and his whole life changing, shifting around in his head. I picture him thinking about what might have been; what could have been; looking down at his big empty hands and not knowing where they came from. Never knowing the absolute comfort of a fathers hand resting on the back of his neck.

“You’re a bloody liar”. He had first said.

And later – “Mum must have had a reason not to tell me”.

I’m sure he wondered, just like I do now, what life would have been like to be a Pepper. But I doubt he would ever have said this to anyone.

3.

My Grandpa was good with his hands; that’s what everyone said. That’s what he was known for. He worked at the Burnley timber yard right up until the day he retired.

Across the road from the Burnley Timber yard, at the Rising Sun Hotel, they knew my Grandpa as ‘One Pot’ Burney. Every single day at lunchtime he would walk directly across the road into the sandwich bar to buy a sandwich, then out of the sandwich bar and into the Rising Sun Hotel. He would stand at the bar and raise his hand, extend his finger and order, “One Pot”. He would then drink his pot, eat his sandwich, and go back across the road to work.

Of course this was all before I had ever met him. My earliest memories are of him standing out in the shed, at his big wooden work bench, always with a piece of wood in the vice. There was sawdust all around and bits and pieces of various projects scattered over the bench; little plans were doodled on bits of paper tacked up onto the wall. A glow of light spilled in through the window above head and shot through the otherwise darkened shed. Dust danced in the light and gave the scene a hazy, warm glow.

My Grandpa’s white car was parked in the shed. It was his pride, his joy, it was his freedom. His hands clutched round that wheel, steering course to destinations unknown.

My Nan used to go pick him up from the station after work every day. She was aloud to drive it to the station, she was not aloud to drive it home.

“He who must do the driving”, my mum used to call him.

Also inside the shed were stacks of pots for the plants, and the walls were lined with old gardening instruments. I can remember the smell of petrol mixed with grass clippings; sawdust and grit. It smelt wonderful.

He once made my mum a small stepladder because he was over one day and saw her straining to reach the stuff at the top of her closet. He then made me one. ‘Cause I wanted one. He also made a doghouse for Kirsch

Kirsch was the dog we had that snuck in to the neighbours house one day to eat rat poison before coming back and going to sleep in the middle of our back lawn.

I screamed when I found him. Mum lying in bed up the other side of the house instantly knew, from the tone of the scream and the mouth that it came from, another pet had died.

The dog house that my Grandpa made had carpet and an insulated roof. Kirsch, while alive, had liked it a lot. Later Ziggy liked it too.

Once my Grandpa saw a wooden weathercock in a home store, he picked it up and turned it over in his hands, examining the mechanism, intrigued by its design. He then bought some wood and made one for each of his six children. My mother’s still sits there on top of the garage, lazily spinning its wings in the breeze, gazing out over the backyard and off into the horizon.

Aside from his short fascination with weathercocks, mostly he made practical things; things that filled a need. Like the ladder for my mum or a table to fit in the kitchen.

He made himself a handle for the steering wheel of his prized car. It resembled a short stumpy pot handle and it jutted out from the bottom. Its purpose was to enable him to still drive the car with his slowly creeping arthritis. He also made a special knife and fork with similar handles to the one on the steering wheel. He made them so that he could keep feeding himself when the arthritis had near crippled his hands. And he made himself a crib board, so that he would have something to do when he could no longer use his tools.

I can see him reaching up and closing that shed door. Resting his hand on that handle for the last time.

I remember it wasn’t long after that his mind started to go.

4.

I stand up in the backyard. I’m wearing my red gumboots and blue overalls.

Grandpa has been chopping wood. He places the axe down next to the chopping block and I move in front of him.

“And what are you doing?”

“Nothing”, I say.

“Is that right?”

“Mum wants a photo”. I say.

“Does she now? Well we’d better give her one then.”

The tips of my straw coloured hair are jutting out somewhere around his waste. He places his hand atop my head as mum readies the camera.

I stand there with my bits of straw and I am nestled under the heavy security of my Grandpa’s hand. Happiness stands with us as my mother takes the picture.

We stand there together, me and my Grandpa. His hand on my head, my hand on the axe. Neither of us smiling.

5.

I hadn’t seen my Grandpa in a long time and everyone knew that his life was reaching its conclusion.

I sat beside my mum in the car, making the long winding journey to my grandparents house.

“He’s not going to be around much longer you know.” My mum says.

“Yeah, I know”, I say back.

“You haven’t seen him in a while.”

“I know.”

“Well you should make more time. Soon he’ll be gone and it’ll be too late then. One day you might wish you made more time when you had the chance.”

“…”

“I should warn you though, he goes in and out. It’s been a while since you saw him, he may not remember who you are.”

“It hasn’t been that long”, I say.

“It’s been a while, and his alzhimers… Just don’t be too disappointed if he doesn’t recognise you.”

As I lingered just outside the door. I could hear the voices of my mum and her sisters chatting away inside.

My mum and her sisters are talkers. Get them in a room and there are more words than there are spaces in between. A common trick for talkers is to take the breaths mid sentence. If you take them at the end then you can be politely interrupted, but if you are half way…

…through a sentence then the audience is forced to wait for you to continue. Of course this doesn’t work in a room full of talkers, cause there are no breathes. Everyone is talking, all the time.

I walked into the room and in amongst all the voices and movement my Grandpa stood in the middle in a space just out of in between. His hands resting limp at his sides. He turned and looked at me as I came in. It is one of the few times I can actually remember him looking at me.

My mum turned and saw this and said to Grandpa, “Dad? Do you know who this is?”

The words grew thin and silence started to creep around the room as everyone asked themselves, ‘is he still at home?’ My Grandpa looked at me.

“No. Who the bloody hell is this guy?” He raised his hand and pointed at me.

There was a horrified silence. For about three beats, as the joke settled in. This was followed by outrageous laughing.

“Hi Grandpa,” I said.

He nodded at me and smiled and went to sit down.

A man of few words.

6.

I was taken in to see Grandpa in the hospital, which was to be the setting for his final scene.

I don’t remember much. I remember white sheets and a small room and a bed. There was some sort of bleeping machine next to the bed.

I can’t remember my Grandpa’s face. I look back now and it is like he was invisible. It was as though everyone was standing around looking at an empty space. I can remember his hand. It was lying stark against the white sheet, as though someone had tipped a small pot of dirt onto the bed. And it lay there not moving.

When it was time to go I leaned in slightly and placed a little goodbye onto the dirt.

“I’m going now Grandpa.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah, okay. Bye.”

“See ya later Jase.”

I turned and walked out.

I could hear my mother crying as I left the room.

7.

We are sitting around my grandparents kitchen table, just getting ready for dinner. On my plate sits some steamed vegetables, most likely broccoli, carrots and peas, some mashed potato, and two chops.

I’m about eight.

And while chops are quite a favourite of mine, what I really like are sausages, and gazing around the table I spot two sitting just across the way, on my grandpa’s plate.

“Grandpa,” I say, “Could I please have some sausage?”

Gandpa looks down at the two sausages sitting there, and then around at the rest of the table.

“Well there aren’t any more left Jase,” he says.

He looks over into my big brown eye’s, which sit gazing right back up at him. He rubs his hand over the bristles on his face.

“But I’ll tell you what, I’ll see how I go with these two, and if I can’t finish them, I’ll give you the rest.”

I sit holding my knife and fork in my hands, prodding and poking, and occasionally biting at my chops, much more preoccupied with my grandpa’s progress as he slowly begins to consume his two sausages. Just as I see grandpa’s hand raise the last bight of the first half of his first sausage up to his mouth, Nan looks over to me and says, “are you enjoying your meal Jase?”

“Yes thank you Nana,” I reply.

My hands continue their work on my chops, as grandpa’s hands do the same with his sausages. I sit gazing at Grandpa’s hands as they raise the end of the first sausage into his mouth.

My Nan looking across at me says, “What are you going to do after dinner Jase?”

“I dunno.” I reply.

I watch grandpa’s hand bring the fork back towards that second sausage, and as the tips of the fork pierce the skin my Nan, still looking at me says,” …and what are you going to do when you get home?”

I look over at my Nan, and very innocently say,” well Nana, when I get home I’m going to tell my dad that I had chops for dinner, and I might tell him that I had some sausage.

My grandpa’s hand drops to the table as laughter explodes from his mouth. And chuckles continue to bounce around the room as my grandpa’s hand lifts back up and starts the journey across the table in my direction.

He drops a sausage on my plate.

9.

He puts down his sander and gently brushes the sawdust onto the floor checking the wood for any patches he might have missed. His hand slides back and forth, enjoying the feel of smoothly polished wood. The sawdust falls in clumps onto the floor, leaving little trails through the air.

And he sits in his new car, rubbing his hands over the steering wheel, taking in the new car smell.

And he stands up from his new flowerbed, rubbing his hands on the fronts of his trousers, leaving big brown smudges which my Nan will later wash off. He smiles at the job well done as he heads back into the shed.

And he sits in a bunker. The rifle which he holds tight in his hands, shivers slightly. He catches himself considering the possibility he may never be going home.

And he sits in the Rising Sun Hotel, his hands wrapped around his beer, quietly watching the football on the small TV across the bar.

And he parades his first born baby, my mother, down the street, smiling and laughing at people as he passes them by. Just proud as all hell to be a father.

And I stop the painting. My eyes stay glued to my hands. I put the brush down and open up one hand up with the other, running thumb along finger, tracing the lines.

I have these images; little pictures collected over time, some from the corridors of memory, others from the recesses of dream. And over time it has become difficult to reconcile the two.

I spent time with my Grandpa as a kid. I helped him in his garden (albeit reluctantly at times). I played crib and ate dinners. And I visited him from time to time as a young adult, shook his hand and perhaps shared a couple of moments. But I didn’t know him. Not really. He was just my Grandpa. And it took his death for me to start thinking about who he actually was.

But I think about him a lot now; all the things that made him who he was.

I had a dream after he died. I was standing in my mum’s backyard, looking up at the weathercock spinning around in the wind. He was standing behind me. He places his hand on my shoulder, and together we breathe in the night air. I turn around and he’s not there. I stand, looking at the space in between nothing, with his hand still on my shoulder. I look down, and it’s my hand.

His Hands

Jason Cavanagh

Surrey Hills, Australia

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Artist's Description

Memories, dreams and renderings of my late grandfather(who was never actually late at all)

Artwork Comments

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