Hands

So much of a writer’s job is paying attention. A photograph on Melissa Noble’s Blog recently reminded me of this. She posted a photograph called Great Gandmother’s Hands. Those hands were absolutely beautiful hands. Hands that had worn life with grace.

The photograph called to my mind the dignity that we often miss in our fellow human beings. And the details of another’s life. Details that are important. Florida writer Robert Newton Peck, in his book Fiction Is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters, says that you can tell a lot about a character from his hands.

It’s in the details that our characters come alive. You can tell whether a character is a worker bee or someone who does no physical work at all. A guitarist will have callouses on his fingers. What does the reader learn about a pianist with short stubby fingers or long graceful ones? Are the hands of a character manicured or are the fingernails chewed off crookedly? Chewed from worry? Is there dirt underneath the fingernails?

When I was reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, he mentioned that John Updike never wore a wedding ring during his first marriage to Mary. During his second marriage to Martha, he wore a wedding ring. This told me so much, not about the writer, but about the man.

One of the things I love about the photographs of Ansel Adams and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth is how much dignity they bring to their subjects.

My Uncle Howard was a butcher. He was larger than life. He could fill a room just by walking into it. One time I asked him, “What happened to your pinkie?”

He threw his head back and laughed that big laugh of his. “I lost it years ago when I was slicing sausage. You can’t imagine the blood that poured out of that hand, enough to start a swimming pool. Anyway I got that hand all patched up. Decided I would honor that pinkie with a name. So I called it bologna.” At that, he winked at me.

“Where’s that pinkie now?” I asked.

“It’s in heaven, waiting for me. Guess I had better be good or I am going to have to spend eternity with one less pinkie, huh?”

The Woman in the Park

From her bench in the park, the woman looked into the camera. It was not a stare, just a look. History stamped her face with all its sorrows and its joys.

Her hair now turned grey and thinned was once a full and a solid auburn. In those days, it hung down to her waist. Her forehead wrinkled, her skin now tough from all those days she spent in the sun. Her temple carried a large splotch of yellow. Her eyelashes had thinned like her hair. Only her left ear heard the sounds of the world around her. Both her eyes were a deep blue and she was blind in the right one.

A mole rested just above her lips. Her nose slightly bent from a break in her youth. Her left nostril was slightly bigger than her right one. Her chin was small but so was her mouth. She reached up and stroked her jaw as if she were remembering some long-ago boyfriend who kissed her cheek, then that small Southern mouth. She had been loved once. And that was all that matter to her. Her name was Sara and she had once been happy.

She smiled at the photographer. He snapped her picture, thanked her and walked away. They were two strangers who had encountered each on a Saturday afternoon in the park.

He went off to photograph others. Sometime later he decided he wanted to tell her something. Sara was gone from the bench.

The next morning Sara’s daughter, Margaret, found her mother dead in her bed, a peace on her face, a smile on her lips. That last photograph had been the gravy on the mashed potatoes. Somewhere someone would see the picture, maybe hundreds of someones, and they would love that face as the photographer had.