Fierce and Tender Work of the Hands

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 - 5:00 am

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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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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  • Gabby

    A life is most full, I think, if one has a chance to work with the range of aspects of ones being- head, hands, body, and heart. After years of doing work with very little physical component (unless you include the physical aspects of child-rearing) and doing handiwork as a hobby, I really wanted more feeling for what work is like that features primarily the large muscles of the body and the hands. So once a week I do that. It is a different way of connecting with the world.
    I find it noteworthy and entirely unsurprising that many people in retirement from professional or white color employment are drawn powerfully toward craft, as if to balance what they have tapped until then in themselves.

  • Melanie G

    I love this 🙂 My grandfather was brilliant, thoughtful, faithful, funny, gentle, and kind. He was also never idle. He could build *anything,* though he didn’t go to school past 8th grade. I love that I inherited some of his beautiful furniture, including gifts he made me like a jewelry box and a cedar wardrobe. When he wasn’t making furniture or crafting a solution to a problem, he found time to make sweet things for my grandmother, like a perfectly cut and polished heart from walnut, onto which he carved his own portrait with a wood burning tool.

    I love that I have his desire to fiddle, fix and figure things out with my hands. I am in no way as skilled as he, but whenever I restore something broken to usefulness or devise a simple but clever solution to a challenge, I think of him and smile.

    One of the deepest pieces of his legacy for me was in his respect for all people. He was an elder in his church – a pillar, really – and led one of the “older folks” Sunday school classes there. When we would visit, we could choose to go to the class for our age, join one of our cousins in their class, or go to his class. If we went to his class, he made sure we knew he wanted to hear what we had to say, and that he believed that he and the others in the class could learn as much from me as I could from them. That was a powerful belief that changed how I saw, and still see, myself.

    Thank you for this post, and for your reflections that led to my own lovely reflections this afternoon. I needed to think of my Grandaddy today!

  • MelissaJay

    my grandpa renewed a dying aerospace engineering program at a CA university because he listened well, and taught gently, with his hands. As a young seven-year-old, he taught me how to build a bow and arrow, and a figure four trap, in the huge garage workshop he followed his love with. He believed in me, and taught me women could build things too, and this was a deep and priceless gift. I love the picture you shared with this story, because I can see energy in pictures, and I can feel his love for you, in the photo, as clearly as if it were written into his hands by God. Thank you for your stories and memories, Parker Palmer, you bless us all.

  • Louis Schmier

    Your essay reminded me of statement that a society with all philosophers and no plumbers or all plumbers and no philosophers will not survive, for neither can hold water. As a professor, I am classified by many as an “egghead” or intellectual. But, my father, a salesman, had both a vice-like logical mind and “golden hands.” He taught me to be appreciative of both and how to be a DIY-er using both. As one who appreciates anyone who can work with her or his hands, in December, 2014, I wrote a reflection on teaching I called “A Metaphor For Life In Wood, Stone, and Marble” ( I wrote an earlier one I called “Philosophers and Plumbers (

  • Jack H. Bender

    Somehow, I’ve known that there would be a communion of these two souls. Knowing both the author and poet, and this lovely poem, I have been especially blessed today.

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  • Elizabeth Russell

    I too see the love of the grandfather in his body language….so attentive, respectful, loving. At the same time, there is space, if I am correct, the space of allowing him to be himself (as opposed to micro-managing). I see such tenderness and appreciation, it touches my heart to tears, for isn’t that what we all need to thrive as ourselves?

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  • Bethany Christian

    Dear Parker,
    Thanks so much for this incredibly moving post. I work helping to recruit foster families at Bethany Christian Services and we were hoping we could use a quote from this column during our celebration of National Foster Care Month in May. Would you give us permission to use this quote? “There is no more important work human hands can do than to hold a child with fierce tenderness that says, in a way words never can: You are loved. You are safe. You can trust.”
    Thanks for considering!
    Allison Poosawtsee

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