Hands

When my little boy was five, he once sat on my lap studiously watching the landscape of my hands. I felt he was about to say something, and not just along the line of ‘They are so big’. So i anxiously followed his gaze. His index finger carefully ran over a vain and pressed the weak spot where the index finger and the thumb loose track of one and other. All of a sudden he said: ‘Papa, your hands are already old’. Apparently he noticed i was a bit startled, for he started kissing my hands like a madman. ‘My kissingmachine’ he calls that and he mostly puts it to work when he has something to make up for or has to put everything on the line to avert the incoming wave of chidlike melancholy. ‘Papa, my Papaatje’ he chirped with the unnaturally high little voice he uses at such occasions to sing his fear or sadness in major key. For naturally we scared of the same thing at the word ‘old’.

I turned warm and weak from this ritual and asked myself, if i myself had ever kissed my father’s hands as a five year old. I only remember doing that on his deathbed, when the life had already started to withdraw from them. And that was as much a primitive spell as an expression of affection. I wanted to make them young and alive again, call them back in the circle. Do we then learn, by becoming adult, so little more or do so few things change, when it comes to elementary matters?

Usually i take as little notice of my hands as of my face, and yet i can recognize people i’m interested in -at least a few hundred- as well by their hands as by their faces. Those are the naked parts of the human and at the same time the most individual. Perhaps that’s why they are the interface of a meeting, of contact and of recognition. It seems probable to me that people who are too shy to look others square in the eye, are more prone to fixate on hands. For those don’t look back. I don’t know, but even after i had gotten used to looking back and answering a evaluating look with real or feigned curiosity, i still kept noticing hands.

And now all of a sudden i see mine through the gaze of the apple of my eye. They cling on to a pen that almost refuses to register something so sentimental. They become small again and lay in the hands of my father, which were also already old when i was born. They were short and calousy, a little bit hard and dry, even when his brow was damp with sweat. I’ve never seen them tremble, not even when he was eighty-five already. My children would not recognize my hands in his and for myself as well i don’t feel a kinship on this terrain.

When i think about those hands, i feel them; but most of the time i would suffice with watching or merely thinking about them. They would then in my fantasy become monuments of diligence and care, sources of an insurmountable guilt. I recall reading at the seminary a passage about ‘father’s hands’ from ‘Am Eichtisch’ by Peter Dorfler, and that i had to hide myself, for i was ashamed for my tears.

No little hands have i ever adored more than those of my little girl. When she was born, i gave her a finger and she grabbed it like babies are supposed to do. I had been briefed completely in that area, and that always means: been warned about personal, lyrical emotions, but still i thought i was sure that in this exceptional case her grabbing little hand was especially greeting me as a father and sought support with me. Now she too judges my hands by their age, by their care and the length of their nails -for one who bites sometimes the cause for jealousy- but for me it is still my greatest joy to walk hand in hand with her and feeling, if only by the size of my hands, like a father and powerful protector, sentimental and perhaps autoritarian, but inescapable and an indescribable pleasure.

Still i scare away from that thought a little. For almost never do i feel, hand in hand with someone, something like equality. There is always bigger and smaller, stronger and weaker, something like communicating barrels that only seem to communicate until they have reached an equal level. When there’s nothing on tap anymore, the hands let go. Is the connection then lost or is that exactly where it is established?

~ Cornelis Verhoeven (1980)

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