My Father’s Hands
“My Father’s Hands”
His hands were strong. And they were skilled, he told me, at throwing stones when he was growing up. He developed perfect aim and got into trouble for it. His mother gave him a lashing for, quite accidentally, hitting his sister with a well aimed stone. He had aimed for the nearby glassless barn window, and the one on the other side of the barn. The stone had gone through both. Unknown to him, his sister, Anna, was on the other side of the barn.
He was a loner at home. A menopausal and unplanned child of widowed and remarried parents, he was the youngest of a long line of children, most of whom were older by quite a number of years. His older brothers, he told me, teased him mercilessly, used him as a toy, the family pet.
By age fourteen, he had been pulled out of high school and had moved, with the family, to a new Mennonite colony. From beautiful Crimea to cold Siberia. By age sixteen he was a teacher in a one room village school in Siberia. At nineteen he was living in an isolated hut in a birch forest guarding the trees from people looking for firewood.
During the Russian revolution he served as secretary in the White Army, was captured by the Red Army and escaped from a prison train by bribing the guard with tobacco, hid behind bushes until the train left the station, and found his way home.
At twenty-four, as village teacher, following Mennonite tradition, he took a loaf of bread to my mother’s family and proposed marriage to her. Upon her refusal, he went to another young woman in the village who suggested he go back to the family and make the request again and was reluctantly accepted. They were married in the village church.
Within the year, my mother’s family decided to escape Communist Russia and migrate to North America. By this time my father was blacklisted by the Communist Party for teaching religious songs to the school children and was not permitted an exit visa. But was able to manipulate and cajole the inept administrators into giving him and his new family permission to leave.
At the Moscow railway station, he heard later, he was paged on the speaker system a day after the train had taken him and his family to the border and freedom. He was sure that the Party had been able to get the paperwork together and was looking to send him to a prison camp. To his dying day he considered this a miraculous intervention.
I was born in Herbert, Saskatchewan. My father, by this time an ordained minister, had ridden his bicycle to Flowing Well, a nearby farm community, to preach in their new church, leaving mother to deal with the birth of his fifth child (and fourth son).
He raised his children with his strong hand, determined by his belief that the gaol of child-raising was to teach them to be obedient. With the help of his Russian belt, which had been one of the few material things to accompany him to Canada, he reinforced his unbending rule.
Understandably, then, all his life, my father wanted to make close friends and rarely succeeded. The loner continued to be lonely. He had not been taught to be close, to be intimate, to form relationships that were open and trusting. It was only in his very old age, in my last conversation with him, that he was able to reveal something of his profound personal struggles.
It was so helpful for his adult children to get this window into his deeply personal inner life. It helped me to understand why his strong hands were never able to touch us, his children, with soft gentleness. Any touch was always painful, from pulling our baby teeth to his rough response to our hugging him in later years.
Dad, now I understand.