A Family Tree

Grandma is holding a ballpoint pen that lost it’s cap a long time ago. She is doing the crossword, like she does everyday. She flips through the grey battered dictionary on the coffee table. The packing tape holds the front cover on. She swiftly adjusts the pen so she can use the same hand to point her index finger and scan the page. She taps the page twice with a satisfying twip twips. She writes TRITIUM in permanent ink on 14 down. I wait until she is finished to ask what it means.

As I watch my Papa slide a worm onto the business end of a fish hook, the worm wiggles slightly. The baiting is a practiced, muscle memory movement. I think the man has baited more hooks than buttered bread. My shoes are stained with the red-dirt mud of the pond we fish in. When we arrived yesterday, he told us about the 3 pound bass he caught without any bait. Now he says, “this is the worm that will get you Big Wally.” His hand shakes, a tiny tremor. I imagine blood and the slow way a not-so-sharp point breaks skin. This is why he baits my hook for me. Papa hands the rod back to me, fingers unscathed.

Grandma’s small hands always seem to be doing some kind of important patting. This morning she formed biscuits like she’s burping a newborn. Across the living room she sits, making tight short stitches in in the quilt she’s working on. This is the part that binds the “guts,” as she calls it, to the pretty parts. When she’s finished, she will fold it just so it will fit inside a pillowcase. She will pat it twice and add it to the stack. Though she’s shown me a dozen times, I am never able to crease the corners just so.

Papa holds his right hand straight to show me the progress of his middle finger. His surgery was successful and now all four fingers line up. On his left, the middle finger creeps toward his palm. He looks like a reluctant yogi with his hand on the side of his armchair instead of in his lap. His hands almost coming together in an om. You can see the tendon dragging it down. “It’s from working all those years at Cotton Electric.” He takes the imaginary wrench into his hand, the only explanation for his condition, and tells me again about how he ran electricity to all the houses in the county.

My dad does this thing with his hands when he’s done eating. After throwing his napkin on his plate, he extends his arms and holds the palms of his hands up directly above his plate. Then he flips them a few times like a magician showing that he’s not holding your card under his palm. What he says changes, always something with the message of “all done,” but the hand gesture doesn’t. He pats his belly a few times and waits for the table to be cleared. Sometimes it is my job. Sometimes it is my mothers.

My brother’s fist pounds into his palm. I imagine if you zoomed in far enough you could see the small reverberation in the fatty part of his hand. He is pacing, telling me how his salary doesn’t actually cover his rent. I venture to say something like “if you stopped golfing on the weekends, you could have more money.” He know, he knows. But that’s not the point. He pounds his fist harder.

My dad is making a point. He alternates between the single-fingered point and the four-fingered point. I’ll know he’s winding down when he starts to turn his palms upward. When he lifts one up to the ceiling as if to say “what the hell?” I’ll know to give an emphatic apology. I think this time I forgot to pull my car into the driveway.

My brother’s hand is hot as we line up the heels of our palms. In this moment, his hands are still. Typically they are pointing at some invisible figure that illustrates his point. They are punctuating his joke with a clap. His fingers curl over my nails. I snap a karate chop at his exposed armpit. He is by baby brother.

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