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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Father's Hands

I don't remember my father's hands, but I remember the tadpoles.

When I think of my father, his hands are the first image to coalesce. They were enormous. Even after I got older, they made mine look like little baby hands. So to a child standing by his knee in the shallow water, the sight of the tadpoles squirming in those gigantic paws must have been striking. But when I think back to that day, I don't picture his hands, or the brackish water or the brownish-green muck. I only see the tadpoles.

During the walk to the frog pond, my father had told me about the tadpoles' transformation into frogs. I could hardly wrap my head around it. I remember struggling even to articulate my confusion. The tail falls off? The tail... goes away? Where? The tadpole... turns into... a frog? This tadpole will... take in part of itself? Its flesh will... flow?

The words I was hearing seemed unbelievable, but they were my father's words, so they had just enough substance to bear me on a leap of faith. My consciousness expanded to include this magical vision of transformation. It's no wonder that those wriggling, slimy teardrops expanded to fill my vision, imprinting themselves on my memory like sauropods on Jurassic clay.

Those memories gestated inside me throughout my awkward childhood and adolescence, though I doubt my father ever knew it. I don't think he ever quite knew what to do with me, let alone figured me out. He was a man of his generation: an NRA member, a hunter, a straight-talkin' traditionalist. I was a fat little introvert, perennially buried in comic books and lost in my head.

He would take me on walks in the woods, and although I never expressed an abundance of enthusiasm for those walks, they set a precedent. At the age of twenty-one I discovered a love of hiking. Clearly this love grew from a childhood spent wandering alone in pastures, fields, orchards, ravines, ridges and roadsides, but that wandering can't be detached from its context. My father's simple act of taking me on walks into the woods showed me that taking walks into the woods was a thing that a person could do.

By the time I neared my teens I was predictably disaffected. Memories of a particular fishing trip cause me the worst pangs of regret. My father got me up early in the morning and drove us to one or two fishing spots that didn't pan out. He said he was taking us to another spot, and I fell asleep in the passenger seat. When I woke up, we were headed home. I said "I thought we were going to that other spot" and he said something noncommittal. I could hear the resignation in his voice. I always felt like that was the moment when he gave up trying to relate to me. I always wished he'd just gone ahead with his plan. I wish he hadn't let my disaffection defeat him.

In 2008, while my father was dying in a nursing home in Chittenango, I discovered the Link Trail. Getting out onto that trail for an hour or two here and there did far more than keep me sane. It created connections not only between me and my younger self, but between three generations. For five years I've felt those connections grow. Sometimes bittersweet feelings sweep over me as heavily as ocean waves. I struggle beneath them, struggle to articulate their depth.

In 2010 I became a steward of a mile and a half of the Link Trail: the section between Irish Hill Road and Damon Road, south of Cazenovia. I've been proud not only to contribute to the trail, but to be responsible for part of it. I'm proud that that's my section. I'm proud to share the trail that I help maintain with my niece and nephew. I'm proud to pass along a tradition of wandering into the green, of cupping a wonder reverently in hands large or small.

Last month I did my first mowing of my fourth year of stewardship. And as I thrust the mower into the tall grass, those waves came rolling back stronger than ever before. I thought of my father dying in the nursing home. I thought of how we connected more during those last few weeks than we ever had before. I thought of what it meant to me to escape briefly into hidden, magical places. I thought of my radiant pride at sharing that magic with the young people in my life. I reveled in this year's bright new blossoms. And my heart fluttered with the skittering motion of mama spiders as they fled with their egg sacs through the grass I'd just cut. I saw things only I can see, and I saw them as only my father's son can see them.

I don't believe in God--at least not in the way that most folk would recognize. I don't believe in heaven, much less that my father is looking down on me. But I believe that when I share nature with a child, it's his hand that guides me.