Janet Sheridan: Remembering my father

I remember hearing on an NPR talk show that when asked to name a memorable feature of their father, most adults answer: “His hands.”

I’m with the majority, although my mother may have influenced me.

She believed one of Dad’s most commendable qualities was his ability to open anything she handed him: sticky jelly jars with stubborn lids; a turpentine container rusted shut; a bottle of bolts with a cross-threaded cap.

“Girls,” she’d say, “Marry a man with strong hands.”

I inherited my Dad’s long, slender bones; but as an adult, when I slipped my hand into his, mine disappeared. His bulky, work-roughened fingers contrasted with the sleekness that marked the rest of him and with his nickname, Slim.

His nails were disorderly: jagged, cracked and circled by deposits of grease and dirt. Each Sunday he did his best to scrub nails and knuckles clean before going to church, but usually gave up so we wouldn’t be late.

He supported us by working with his hands in the depths of the Hoover Dam, the gold mines of California and the iron-ore tunnels of Utah. He began as a mucker, shoveling debris, then, promoted to miner, he operated a jackhammer and handled dynamite.

At 35, fearing black lung, Dad left the gloom of mines to work in the heat and fire of a blast furnace at an iron mill. Sometimes hot metal burned holes in his leather gloves. Other times he came home with heat exhaustion and worried us.

When laid-off or on strike, he took any job he could find to prevent “going on the dole,” which would be more demeaning than bucking bales in another fellow’s alfalfa field or cleaning coops at a neighbor’s chicken hatchery.

At home, Dad used his hands to paint without dripping and paper with precision, skills hard-taught by his unaffectionate stepfather. He pitched a curving baseball, dropped seeds into garden soil he had tilled, picked cherries by the stem as is best, bullied stubborn cows and dealt cards like a casino worker.

I don’t remember Dad ever using his hands to discipline me, except once, when he caught Bob and me playing along the forbidden drain ditch. He grabbed my shoulders and shoved me toward home, then chased Bob and gave him a whap on his backside for running away — Bob being slower than I to recognize the realities of our situation.

I also have no memory of Dad caring for me when I was little, although I know from watching him with my younger brothers that he sang to me, held me, diapered me, rocked me and felt my feverish forehead.

I do remember the gentle touch of my father’s hands and their comfort when I was a teenager. The summer before seventh grade, my family moved from Lake Shore to Spanish Fork and my friendships faltered. The Lake Shore girls rode a bus to the same junior high I attended, but my church and neighborhood associations were with a group of Spanish Fork girls who had been together since kindergarten.

One afternoon, I fled into our house, told my tearful tale to Mom, then threw myself face down on the top bunk I occupied in our new home, sobbing. The Spanish Fork group I thought had accepted me had taken the train to Provo on an outing and “forgotten” to invite me.

Dad came home from work, heard my crying and questioned Mom. In minutes, he stood by my bed: large, work-scarred hands rubbing my back. He stood silently; his hands telling me how sorry he was, how bad he felt that he had moved me from a home I loved so much.

I fell asleep to his touch; I have never forgotten it.

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