A painting by Bonnie Coulter of her father

A father’s hands convey a new reality

Writer remembers how her father taught and guided her

I was a budding tomboy the first time I really looked at my dad’s hands.

Those hard working hands did not do dishes or laundry. In fact they were not involved in house duties at all. I followed him everywhere I could, including his workshop at the back of our property as far away from the house as possible. It was there that I became the indispensable gofer. I watched and learned about the rebuilding of both gas and diesel engines. I saw a two-wheel drive truck transformed into a four-wheel drive in the space of a weekend. I marveled at the beauty of a new crank shaft sitting in a crate of wood shavings.  Ah, the spine of the beast. Dad let me believe I was helpful in that man’s place.

Our yard suffered a degree of neglect somewhere between bed head and back-combed hair before it evolved into a beehive hairdo. The duty of lawn and yard care was, as yet unassigned. Apparently this chore was as unwelcome as the sink of dirty dishes avoided by us all. To better avoid household duties I took up lawn mowing. I loved the sound of the mower and the smell of cut grass. I became the queen of sharp blades, straight lines, no Mohawks. Ball diamond patterns would come later. Lawn mowing filled my pre-boyfriend summers. None of my five siblings ever challenged me for the position. I even mowed the neighbour’s acre of lawn. No payment, just for the love of it and cookies. “Why” dad asked me, “would you do that?”  “I like his lawn mower,” I replied. “It’s the reel type, you know, and it pulls itself along. I just steer and keep up.” I kept to myself how I loved the way the cut grass came out the back. Laid out in the same direction and order that it went in, flattened like wet clothes coming out of the wringer washer. Dad gave me a hard look. “It starts first pull,” I added defensively. Silence was his only reply. He knew how I struggled to start our big mower. Sometimes I would tug on that starter rope all day and not even get a good cough. The larger hands of either dad or my older brother Dave would have to come to my rescue. On those occasions I was certain I did not measure up.

My fear of disappointing dad evaporated the day after our big mower died. There on the tailgate of the 4×4 was a brand new lawnmower. It was a little like me. “There,” he said, “you should be able to start that one. It’s a Tecumseh, good and reliable.” As promised it started easily. After fouling the spark plug he taught me how to clean it, set the gap, and mix the gas. I mowed everything in sight that summer. I found every loose rock. I took out one large window (it would not be my last) before I learned to set the blade higher when mowing the rough. I loved the mower. I wish I could say I kept it like new but that would be untrue. I worked it hard. On weekends I mowed the lawn at our summer cabin, happy to have a reason not to put on a two-piece swimsuit. I mowed and watched my sisters strut the length of our dock as though it was a Paris runway. I turned my back on waterskiing.

After two years of relentless use the lawnmower quit. I rolled it up to dad’s shop. dad pulled the cord once and pronounced “Hear that? The diaphragm is leaking, got to rebuild the carb.” I was miserable without my habit for the next few weeks. Looking out the window like a bloodhound I could see the grass reaching up as though it knew the terrible duo was out of commission. Like a bloodhound, I soothed my soul by scenting fresh mowed grass out the car window. The next weekend dad brought home a carburetor kit and we got right to it. I tried to follow his instructions. I didn’t understand it all and tried to hand it back to him. “You know, your Aunt Audrey was the best mechanic on the farm. She could tear down a combine and fix it as good as any man, dad stated.  He had thrown the gauntlet. We both admired my aunt greatly. In my eyes she achieved what every tomboy should be when she grew up. The carburetor reassembled, fresh gas, clean filter, it was time to test it out. I leaned into that rope and pulled back hard. It started. However shocked by the success of this, I went straight to mowing before the light was gone.

The next morning, before school, dad braided my long hair as he often did for all his five daughters. “You’d better get the snap and clean the grease off your hands before school,” he noted. I looked at my hands. Dirty with new knowledge. The new experience still felt there. I didn’t want to wash it away.

I remember that day as I sit quietly with dad’s hands in mine. I consider how familiar these large hands were. Still recognizable but no longer calloused from the hard work of finishing concrete; scars of old conflict no longer visible. I used to think his hands matched King Kong’s. So large in fact I feared he had descended from Sasquatches rather than the Scottish clan McIntosh. Sitting here, 89-year-old father’s hand in mine I am overwhelmed. He isn’t aware of the way I am studying him, childhood apprehension no longer inhibits the exploration of my father.

Today his large, smooth hands convey a new reality to my small, calloused, gardener’s hands.

Bonnie Coulter

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