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The On Being Project

Fierce and Tender Work of the Hands

The photo below shows my Grandpa and me in front of his Waterloo, Iowa home, probably around 1941. His name was Jesse Palmer, he married Jennie Parker — and now you know how I got to be a guy with two last names. I’ve always been proud to bear my Grandma’s maiden name. It’s good karma!

Grandpa was a machine tool operator who made parts for John Deere tractors. When he got home from work, he’d scrub the grease off with “20 Mule Team Borax” and sit down to supper. Then he’d work the fenced-in garden behind the house until sunset. Before he came back inside, he’d stand by the fence contemplating the garden while puffing on his pipe. I loved sharing those moments with him.

In the winter months, he’d go to the basement and make things with his hands, just like the grandfather in the poem below. Next to my writing desk stands a bookcase Grandpa made. On top of it sits this photo, along with his union badge and two tiny but incredibly detailed carvings he made out of peach pits — a monkey with a curved tail and a May basket.

This poem by Jack Ridl brought back wonderful memories of Grandpa Palmer, one of the best men I’ve ever known. Among other things, it made me reflect again on “the work of the hands” — on how important it is to being fully human, and how much we lose when we lose respect for it.

As I looked at the photo through the eyes of age and memory — and yes, through mistiness — I was struck by another thought: There is no more important work human hands can do than to hold a child with a fierce tenderness that says, in a way words never can, “You are loved, you are safe, you can trust.”

Parker Palmer with his grandfather, Jesse Palmer, in 1941. (Parker Palmer / © All Rights Reserved)

by Jack Ridl

My grandfather grew up holding rags,
pounding his fist into the pocket
of a ball glove, gripping a plumb line
for his father who built what anyone
needed. At sixteen, wanting to work on
his own, he lied about his age
and for forty-nine years carried his lunch
to the assembly line where he stood
tightening bolts on air brake after
air brake along the monotonous belt.
I once asked him how he did that all
those years. He looked at me, said,
“I don’t understand. It was only
eight hours a day,” then closed
his fists. Every night after dinner
and a pilsner, he worked some more.
In the summer, he’d turn the clay,
grow tomatoes, turnips, peas,
and potatoes behind borders
of bluebells and English daisies,
and marigolds to keep away the rabbits.
When the weather turned to frost,
he went to the basement where,
until the seeds came in March,
he made perfect picture frames, each
glistening with layers of sweet shellac.
His hands were never bored. Even
in his last years, arthritis locking every
knuckle, he sat in the kitchen carving
wooden houses you could set on a shelf,
one after another, each one different.


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