Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Uncle Ralph's Hands

"Where you planning on fishing tonight?" I was so taken with being allowed to drive the boat that I'd driven it right past the power lines that hung over our favorite fishing spot. I turned it around, found the power lines and dropped the anchor. The sun would soon set and our lanterns would be lit. We'd spend the evening cursing bugs, drinking coffee out of his thermos and dozens of crappie and catfish would soon be one step closer to Aunt Nell's frying pan.
When the weather turns warm, my mind returns to those summer nights spent fishing with my Uncle Ralph....back to the days before Dawson County was a suburb and you could spend a night fishing on Lake Lanier and not see another living soul. I learned how to fish. I learned how to drive a boat in daylight and dark, using the tree line against the night sky to guide you. I learned a lot of words and expressions my mother didn't approve of (how hard must a rain be before it can be described as falling "like a cow pissin' on a flat rock" ?? ) I learned how to tell by the sound of a dog's bark off in those dark woods that it wasn't just barking for the hell of was chasing something. I also learned that the wretched stench coming from those woods meant the dog wished it had chased something besides a skunk. I learned that there's lots of ways to make an honest living and it doesn't matter so much how you're making it just as long as you're making it. But I always thought the means by which Uncle Ralph provided for his family was a pretty fair measure of a man. And you could see those hundreds of days spent in hard labor when you looked at his hands.
His hands and fingers were constantly busted and bleeding. A Winston cigarette looked like a toothpick in those thick fingers. They never really looked clean because you can't wash off years of sheetrock mud and red clay. As a child, he and his hands became quite the measuring stick for me in determining how much of a man a man really was. Like I said, it was just important to him that you earned a living, not how you did it. My father made a living at a desk. I make a living in front of a laptop. But I'm still hell-bent on believing that going to bed sore every night means that you've done a good day's work...and a hard day's work is satisfying on levels that go beyond financial.
I saw him lose control of his emotions exactly once. I was 17 years old and his youngest child was lying in a hospital bed losing a battle with cancer. After hours spent by that bed he walked into a waiting room, sat in a dark corner, put his face in his hands and quietly cried for just a few seconds. I couldn't hear him crying, but I knew he was. He then wiped his eyes, lit one of those Winstons, took a few quick draws, put it out in an ash tray and returned to his dying son's bedside. THAT, I thought, is how a man handles tragedy.
Being in my mid 40's is a much stranger experience than I ever imagined. I tend to look at myself from the outside in, as if I'm watching someone else get older, not myself. In my mind I'm still 20-something and turning over a thousand things in my head I want to see and do and accomplish before my time on planet earth ends (" something like a swiss army knife..yeah, that's my life...") I'm sometimes caught off guard when I realize that I AM that person who's getting older and the death of loved ones reminds me that nothing is forever. For years my weight was the time is the antagonist. Weight I could conquer...time's a real ass-kicker. But also constantly hanging over my head is the example shown to me by men like Uncle Ralph. Men who were men, by God, and in charge and in control. I'm not quite sure I'll ever live up to the template they left me.
The last time I saw Uncle Ralph alive he was the one in a hospital bed. A ventilator was doing his breathing for him and the end was near. I took his hand to tell him I loved him and to thank him for all he'd taught me. And, though the rest of that body had turned frail those hands still felt like sandpaper, as if he'd spent that very day turning someone's patio into a sunporch or planting fifteen rows of beans.


Melinda Sileo said...

I'm not mentally/emotionally stable enough to read stuff like this! Beautiful - brought back the wonderful memory of Uncle Ralph.

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Steve Ashley said...

Wonderful words, cousin. You brought back memories of the times I went fishing with him up at that old cabin on the lake. To you you, he was Uncle Ralph. To me he was simply Pa-Pa. He always was bigger than life to me and I miss him more than I ever thought possible. And just in case he can see this, I'd rather be a carpenter than a painter any day, because that's what my Pa-pa was.