Grandpa’s Hands


Patience Fletcher carefully snapped the cover open on her father’s large gold pocket watch that hung on a chain from the wooden bedpost. She gazed curiously at the faded face in the small brown-tinted photograph on the inside of the cover.

Less than sixty seconds had ticked away on the shiny timepiece when Niles, Patience’s lanky fourteen-year-old brother, passed their parents’ open bedroom door and spied his six-year-old sister standing barefoot in a rumpled nightgown against a misty patch of dawning window light.

Life along the river started as early as first light—sometimes sooner. The children’s father ran a ferryboat across the Fox River. It was an uncommonly beautiful sight to see the first sign of day break over Crazy Water Canyon before the ear caught the sound of somebody’s wagon creaking down the little rutted dirt road toward the buckled landing and Fletcher’s Ferry.

It had been Niles’s responsibility since Grandpa Ely died to collect the tolls while his father readied the passengers, wagons, and animals on the flatboat.

Now as Niles stepped quietly into the room, he said, “That’s Grandpa Ely.” He pulled a suspender up over his shoulders and pushed a shock of long yellow hair out of his eyes, eyes that warmly observed his sister’s undisturbed interest in the picture. “You were too little to remember,” he continued, “but he used to call you his ‘little bit of lace.’”

Patience’s large dark eyes shifted from the sunlit photograph to her brother. “Could you tell me about him, Niles? Every time Pa starts to, his eyes get all shiny and wet. He says it’s just road dust in his eyes. Then all of a sudden he remembers something he has to do and leaves.”

Niles smiled understandingly and crossed to the window. He faced the deep, wide river, glistening in the daybreak light. Then his gaze settled on a small grave beside the gently rolling water that was barely visible beneath the dew-sparkling branches of a willow tree. “It’s still hard for Pa to talk about him, little Sis. He misses him something fierce, even after five years.”

Patience looked again with growing curiosity at the photograph beside the steadily ticking watch, then joined her brother at the window.

Niles stood there a moment in silence. Then he began to speak softly. “I remember Grandpa’s hands. Yes, it’s his hands that I remember best. They were big and strong. I seldom saw them idle in his lap. They were busy clearing the land from here to the river while Pa was laid up with a broken leg. I remember the trees and brush were so thick around here, Pa said it put the wind into a regular fit just trying to find a place to go around. Grandpa’s hands were lined and worn from a lifetime of use. ‘His heart was in his hands,’ Ma always said, ‘because he was always reaching out to help someone.’ If they weren’t busy doing things like lifting me up to this window so I could see you the minute you were born or pulling me out of that river down there the time I fell in and almost drowned, they were helping Pa rig the ferry or some stranger mend a wagon wheel or else picking wild flowers for Grandma.

“His hands were gentle and soft, too, as soft as the river at its quietest, like the time he worked his fingers through my hair for a day and a night when I was near out of my head with fever. And they were happy too. They’d slap his knees to beat the band everytime Pa played his fiddle. And there were times I’d see them folded together in prayer or resting atop the heads of those in need of a blessing. Once a wagonload of people sick with cholera came through here. They’d been turned out by the rest of their train. Grandpa’s hands bid them welcome and worked miracles, and not a one of those folks died.

“I remember how I liked to hold his hand when we went for walks, because it felt safe. And I remember how it felt when his hand squeezed mine. It took the sting out of the day my dog, Banjo, ran off and never came back. And his hand on my shoulder filled me with pride the morning I gave my first Sunday School talk.

“Those hands held the scriptures too. They dug into fields and planted seeds or went deep into his pocket to give some poor traveler a dime. And sometimes they held Grandma tenderly, but with a sure strength. They could become excited when Grandpa was caught up in telling us tales of desert storms and flatland fires and thundering prairie herds. And they were as peaceable as an amen when they bandaged a hurt or tucked me into bed.”

Patience looked up at her brother in the patched, faded trousers. “Grandpa was a good man, wasn’t he, Niles?”

Niles smiled, his eyes misting. “One of the best, little Sis. One of the very best.”

The rattling sound of a flatbed wagon, piled high with barbwire on the road outside, pulled Niles’s attention back to the window. He could see his father on the jetty, setting aside a long hooked pole he had been using to clear away debris the water had deposited against the upriver side of the landing. Then he started up the pier toward the approaching wagon.

“Well,” Niles remarked to his sister, “it looks like there’s a wagon that wants to cross. I better get out there and help Pa.” He started out the open door, jerking his second suspender up over his shoulder and adding, “As hot as it feels already, you’d best fetch some of Ma’s lemonade for those folks coming in.”

“OK, Niles,” Patience assured him. She walked back to the bed and returned the pocket watch to its place on the bedpost. She lingered a bit in the warm silence of the little room, staring at the face of Grandpa Ely. Finally she whispered, “I hope my hands grow up to be just like yours, Grandpa. I truly do!” Then she turned and whisked out of the room.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Janae Smith Westhoff