My Father’s Hands

Sofia’s hair has recently become long enough for tiny pigtails and dainty barrettes. It’s wildly curly and needs to be thoroughly wetted in the morning so that it transforms from a crazy collection of fluffy cowlicks to an adorable set of tightly curled ringlets all over her head. I love combing it and watching the curls bounce into place.

A couple of days ago, I came across a little tangle in her hair. Tugging to get it out, I lost control of the comb, and it slid down across her ear. She flinched away, of course, and I chuckled. I couldn’t help laughing — I’d suddenly remembered my own experiences with ear-combing.

When I was four, my parents, residents of a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, decided to join another family who’d recently moved to a trapline in Northern British Columbia. It was a remote, beautiful place next to the Stikine River. Our family lived in a tiny cabin right next to the river, and we used the larger cabin up the hill as communal headquarters as well as living space for the other family.

Back on the commune, making breakfast was a chore shared by all the women in turn. Around the time we left, the population of the commune was about 200, so there would have been somewhere between 20 and 50 adult women to shoulder that task. On their mornings to cook, they would get up early, tiptoe out of their individual family homes (or dormitory, if they were single back then), and go to the main building to prepare the meal, which was served at seven. With so many women sharing the job, each woman only had to make breakfast once every couple of weeks. But on the trapline, there were only two women, so my mother would leave the house early about every other day, leaving my dad to get my brother and me ready for the day.

My dad is a gentle, creative man with craftsman’s hands. Those hands can achieve just about anything. Chopping down trees, smoothing the bark off the logs, building them into a shop. Creating his own lathe inside that shop, spinning wood on the lathe into delicate shapes: handles, round picture frames, jewelry boxes, a family of dolls for me. Those hands could sketch wildflowers, create an embroidery pattern, and make delicate stitches on fabric. They can execute a skilled pen-and-ink drawing, form a silly comic, make a detailed charcoal scene. His hands can coax music out of any instrument he picks up — a guitar, a recorder, a banjo. He made his own fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer. Truly, my father’s hands can do anything. Anything except comb a four-year-old’s hair without combing over her ears.

It would start off well. He’d ask my mom for pointers. She’d show him how to hold the hair in one hand, combing tangles out of the ends first, working upward. He’d try so hard to be gentle, starting on one side, successfully avoiding the first ear, working around to the other. We’d be almost done. I’d finally relax, positive that this time my ear would be safe. And then, RIP! The comb’s teeth would scrape over my sensitive ear, I’d wail, and he’d slump in defeat.

The rare times that my dad would manage to get all the way through my hair without combing my ear, he’d succumb to an even worse pitfall. Just above my ear on the right side of my head, hidden under my hair, is a wen. It’s a bump that used to be small, before it was built up with all the scar tissue from having its top ripped off with a comb, over and over. My dad would be so focused on avoiding my ears that he’d forget about the wen. The comb’s teeth would catch the top and rip off the fragile skin. Blood would seep out, matting my hair. We’d arrive at breakfast with one side of my hair still bedtime-fuzzy, stuck together with blood, and my mother would sigh and shake her head. And then for days I’d flinch anytime a comb came close to me, because while combing my ear was painful, combing the top off the wen was agonizing.

It’s funny, though. Having my hair combed by my dad hurt back then, but now, that sudden memory is heartwarming. I’m so glad that I have the memory of my father’s strong hands cradling my head, working a comb through my hair, making my hair shine despite the awkwardness that came from the unaccustomed task. And now it’s my turn to do the same for my daughter, feeling her baby hair spiral around my fingers, finding tricks to get her head in the right position, gently easing tangles out, and remembering how hard my father tried to be just as gentle with me as I try to be with my own little girl.


A Lying Liar and a Singer Sewing Machine

Recently I read (and watched) a story about the first lie the author ever told as a child. Years later, the author — now a teacher — still vividly remembers the experience. Reading his story, I realized that my own first lie is just as indelibly branded on my memory.

I was four years old. It was my family’s first year living in a tiny cabin next to the Stikine River in British Columbia, where we trapped furs for income, hunted and fished for meat, and grew a huge garden full of vegetables that we preserved for winter food. In that remote place, there was no electricity, unless we used precious fuel to run a generator — something we did only on laundry days to run our ancient cylindrical wringer washing machine.

My mother’s sewing machine was a worn but elegantly beautiful foot-treadle-powered Singer sewing machine with a wooden cabinet and a painted metal head, which I called the “horse.” She doesn’t have it anymore, but I found a picture of a nearly identical machine (this one has a wooden cover that’s shown in a different photo; my mother’s allowed the top to rotate down into the cabinet) at Copycat Collector:

A beautiful Singer sewing machine.
A beautiful Singer sewing machine.

I loved the whir of the flywheel and belt and the rhythmic thump of the treadle when my mom sewed. But most of all, I was fascinated by the shining blur of the speeding needle.

My mother had been sewing one afternoon while I watched, when she found she needed something outside. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she said. “DON’T TOUCH THE SEWING MACHINE.”  I had just learned how to time one minute on the clock. I sat myself down on a chair below the pear-shaped wooden clock my dad had made, and kept my eyes fixed on the second hand. It went all the way around one time, but my mother was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps I’d been mistaken in my attempt to count off a minute. I watched again. Still no mother. Clearly, she had gotten lost and was never returning.

Tears welled up, my chin wobbled, and I opened my mouth for a hearty wail — which was stopped, abruptly, by my realization that I was not just motherless, I was unsupervised. I could do whatever I wanted. I could…I could…

I could touch the sewing machine.

I approached the shining, forbidden machine slowly, carefully. Reached out one finger. Stroked the painted design. Strummed the leather belt. Examined the shining silver balance wheel (that’s the small wheel at the end of the head, for those that care). I gloried in the machine’s beauty, now all mine. Finally, I ventured to touch the most dreaded part of the never-to-be-touched sewing machine: the needle. I slid my finger under the point, relishing the delicate scratch of the sharp tool. Then I rested my finger below the needle, on the toothy feed dogs (the teeth that pull the fabric forward), and eyed the wheel speculatively. When turned by hand or by the belt connected to the treadle down below, the silver balance wheel put a series of hidden cogs into motion, causing the needle to flash up and down. I’d seen my mother turn the wheel many times with a practiced hand, to position the needle correctly or to boost the motion when starting a seam so as to put less strain on the leather belt. I was tall enough to stretch one hand to the wheel while resting my finger under that seductive needle. My mind raced with the possibilities. Finally, motherless, I could do what I’d always (I now knew) wanted to do: race the needle.

I was positive I could do it. Surely my finger could move faster than the needle. I would turn the wheel slowly at first, for practice. But I failed to take physics into account. Turning the balance wheel slowly still caused the needle to flash oh, so very quickly, right into my waiting finger. It slashed a red furrow into the side of my finger, which quickly welled with blood. I stared, aghast. My beloved machine had betrayed me. Suddenly, being motherless lost its appeal. I opened my mouth and bellowed: “MOMMMMMMYYYYYY!”

Instantly, like magic, there she was, wrapping me in her arms, soothing my tears, prying my hand open to see the source of the blood, and demanding sternly, “Did you touch the sewing machine?”  And I, weeping with the shock of the needle’s cruelty, streaming blood from a needle-shaped gash in my finger, sobbed, “N-n-n-noooooo!”

For years afterward, I believed that I’d successfully convinced my mother that I hadn’t touched the machine. I wrestled with guilt and shame: I had lied to my mother. I had deceived. I was almost certainly going straight to hell. The experience was so wrenching — the lie, not the gash — that I never lied again. Ever. I bent the truth slightly on occasion; I evaded; I distracted and misdirected when necessary; but I never a lie. To this day, I can’t do it. It’s simply impossible. I relive the horrified, ashamed ache in my belly that came with the lie, and I just can’t manage it. And it’s all because I was betrayed by a beautiful piece of mechanical art.