A grandfather’s hands are large. Do you have the joy of knowing this?
It seems to me that hands grow throughout one’s lifetime, relative to other aspects of the body, as do ears and noses. Eyebrows too, of course. So even if your grandfather was not of particularly large physical stature, he may have had large hands by the time you knew him. Joints thicken, too, even without the effects of arthritis — you can tell the decade of an aikidoka’s life by the feel of his wrists.
My grandpa — my mother’s father — was tall and slender. I understand that he was a diva on roller skates, and that he could sing, but these things were before my time. By my time, the Second World War was three decades behind him, and yet had never gone, the Philippine Theatre ever in his mind, so that he almost never spoke, and left the radio on all night. He drank and smoked too much, couldn’t find work after he turned fifty. Diabetes consumed his eyesight, and other complications his vigor, so that I predominantly remember him bedridden in the nursing home.
My mom would drive my sister and I in from the farm to visit him every Sunday afternoon. Dad would join us when he had time, as would Grandma. (Grandma was busy working as a shift manager in the hospital cafeteria through this time, and long after.) We could gently sit Grandpa up and help him into a wheelchair, slip house shoes on over his athletic socks, tuck an afghan around his shoulders, wheel into the activity room for a while — or we could just stay in his room, the white tiles of the floor cool in the summer, the sunlight bright through the west-facing picture window.
Some of my story-telling skill, what I have of it, comes from my time with Grandpa, because that was the main activity of our visits: to tell stories. Stories of high school, of study, of farm life, whatever we could think of, a week’s antics and accidents and mundane activities told in rich detail, all in the pursuit of happiness. Mom and my sister and whoever else was there would tell stories, too, and Grandpa would listen, smiling in silence, his hands lying softly in his lap.
Story-telling and attention to the senses, too, for what gifts could we give Grandpa then? We would select old shake shingles from the woodpile and then glue on pine cones, milkweed silk, dried beans of various sizes and shapes — whatever collections of contrasting textures we could find. Grandpa would run his fingertips delicately over these greeting cards and smile broadly.
I pause here, my thoughts scattered over the table like antique marbles, bubbly transparent with their swirls of color within, some chipped and cracked, others in halves, some still magically perfect. I am standing beside Grandpa’s bed, and it’s time to go. I gently set my hand on top of his, perhaps embrace him, and I am as amazed now as then at how he could convey love without a single movement, without a word, without even a glance, his eyes always closed but his whole body radiating love, his whole being subdued into a stunning tenderness, the glow of which has never left me.
“Your grandfather loves you girls,” my mom would say as we drove quietly home. Yes, we know.
There was work to do. You can’t not plant, harrow, cultivate, harvest, preserve. You can’t not build, repair, plan, sort, analyze, learn. If you have livestock, you definitely can’t not care for the them. (Well, you can not do all these things, but not if you want to be successful.) We all bow to the work, even as our hearts break.
The only reason I can bear to leave you is that the work needs done.
I met an aikidoka that works as a midwife in the mountains. In introducing myself, I noted that it might be a little surprising to find a farm girl studying martial arts. She nodded in agreement, but her reasoning surprised me.
“Farm life is militaristic enough,” she said.
Of course, she was right. I just hadn’t thought about it that way.
My other grandfather — my father’s father — had not wanted to farm. He had wanted to be a pilot. But he was the only grandson in a German-American farm family, a fate that would have been very difficult to escape. There are photos of Grampsy as a child, standing in an early spring field with his elder men, the soil still a flat expanse of sepia emptiness. No one is smiling. No one is moving, no one gesturing; they stand like soldiers caught in a moment of reprieve. (Farmers were not allowed to go to the War, because their work was too important. It couldn’t not be done.)
But the work had its pleasures. I would be the first to say that I miss it. Grampsy, for instance, had a way with critters. He could tell good cattle just by looking at them from afar. He would scoop up a cat as he walked down the sidewalk, tuck it under his arm and give it a vigorous and yet gentle scrubbing, so that when he set it down again it would shake its head and blink its eyes, dazed, then chase after him for more.
And there were grandkids. Grampsy did the mowing of some of the house yards. When the youngest grand-baby was just that, Grampsy would mow for hours with one arm steering and Kevin John tucked in the other, sound asleep.
All of our grandparents came to see us whenever they were able — to our musical performances, our sports events, our academic competitions and awards nights — they came to see us receive all the prizes of small-town Midwestern life. And there are photos of us all in various states of helpless laughter over holiday dinners or over evening ice cream or tapioca in the motorhome, far from home.
The balance of my story-telling skill comes from Grampsy. He would talk to anybody, and he seemed to know everybody within a forty-mile radius. I used to sit with him at the town’s Fourth of July carnival, in a booth on main street — I don’t know whether we were manning the duck pond or the ticket booth or the straight-up information booth — and I would watch one after another person, both those he had been neighbors with from childhood and those that were just passing through for the day, open up into easy and pleasant conversation with Grampsy.
Watch and learn, Grasshopper, I think now, as I look back. This is how to talk to people. This is how to enjoy talking to people. Although he never said that to me.
By the time Grampsy was confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home, I had left the farm for college. I visited him and Granny whenever I was home. One day in June, Dad drove Tsvet and I in town for a visit.
Grampsy was sad and confused. Granny’s dementia had taken her farther away than ever, and his doctors couldn’t discern a cause for his leg pain. Incontinence, too, was a severe trial of self-worth.
“And my hands are useless,” he concluded. They were, from his diabetes. It was hard for him to hold a fork, even one that had an extra-large handle.
I knelt in front of his wheelchair, took both of his large hands in mine. “I know why it’s so hard,” I said.
Papa left the room.
Grampsy met my eyes, his simple and blue, and softly asked, “Why?”
“Because the hardest test—the hardest challenge — is saved for the last. You have all the wisdom of your whole life behind you to help you. That’s why. You’re doing a good job. You can do it.”
It was an outrageous thing to do, audacious, to hold his hands, look him in the eyes so close, and say something like that. Folks just don’t do that sort of thing.
You can observe these cultural rules in the old photos, if you know what to look for — one person is seldom touching another, and is even less often looking another person in the eyes. And they are not discussing emotion, relationship, or even poetry, although the photos won’t tell you that.
But I had no point to make, nothing to prove about myself — it just seemed to be the right thing to do. Perhaps I was the only one willing to engage him so, or maybe the only one able to. Sometimes granddaughters have a grandfather clause.
Grampsy passed on a few weeks after this conversation.
“I am so excited about the beauty of this art!” the aikido instructor beamed as we sat down to fold our hakamas. We had just finished a class focused on ukemi, which is the art of receiving an attack in aikido. Ukemi is almost a world unto itself, with its various falls and rolls and methods of blending with, turning, and receiving power without getting hurt. Although of course, you need both attacks and responses to make a martial art make sense.
This class had focused in particular on mindfulness — we slowed down our techniques of responding to attacks so that we could study each of their minute details.
“Can you feel the floor?” the instructor had asked us. “As you roll, see if you can feel your shoulders against the mat — first, feel the mat beneath your hands. [He swept his hands in small circles on the mat where he knelt.] Then feel it against your arm as you lay it flat on the mats, beginning your roll. Then feel the mat against your leading shoulder, then across your shoulder yoke, then feel the mat against your trailing shoulder. Feel its contact as you roll down your ribs, feel your hips as they reconnect with the mat, then your legs, and finally, feel your feet as they settle against the mat.”
Mindfulness like this creates a wonderful peace and calm. Another benefit of an ukemi class is the chance to discuss and experience ukemi up close and personal, up front and in focus. I had asked to study the ukemi for suwariwaza ikkyo. This is the most basic aikido technique, except that it’s done with both partners on their knees. We practiced ikkyo both kneeling and standing, deflecting each other’s symbolic sword strikes, and turning each other toward the pin.
“What’s most important about this for the attacker,” the instructor explained, “is to come into the defender. You must be willing to give your body to the defender, to come in close so you can stay present, rather than just taking the defense in your shoulders and turning away. It’s more effective for you as an attacker, because you are more balanced and can respond better — you can continue to defend yourself — but it’s also better for the defender. If you turn away, the interaction is finished too early. But if you come in, stay present, then the defender has more work to do. The feeling is qualitatively different. It’s much better.”
We students tried this most basic principle with the instructor and with each other several times, attacking and defending in different ways, sometimes turning away from one another, sometimes sliding right up against one another. It really was different. When one of my attackers came all the way in, so that his waist pressed against my side, it was a surprising presence. It actually had a pleasantness, a personal connection, that turning away didn’t have.
It was a humbling class, although we spent the entire hour in unusual stillness. I had watched this instructor demonstrating techniques before, and had trained with him, had noted his exceptional responsiveness, his ability to flow like the breeze incarnate, but I hadn’t had a chance to hear him talk about what he was doing, demonstrate each piece, invite a set of students to experience it.
I was equally surprised as he volunteered to share his thoughts after class — he volunteered to discuss this intense, interior, delicate art, this poetry of relationship.
“How long have you trained?” I asked him.
Good heavens. May I be so blessed. “So are you newly excited, or excited all along?”
“I’ve enjoyed it all along, and I’ve reached several turning points, but I’m recently seeing things in a new way. For some time, I have practiced paying intense attention to my ukemi. As part of this, I have learned to pay intense attention to the floor, since a lot of ukemi is about getting to the floor safely. I always know where the floor is, where I am in relation to it, and I can get there really fast. I can always feel the floor.
“What I realize now is that the attentiveness that I use regarding the floor, that I use when I’m falling and rolling, when I’m being thrown — this attentiveness can also be turned to paying attention to my partner. I can pay attention to what they’re doing, where they are, how they’re moving. This makes me more gentle, more responsive, more effective, and more present.” He enumerated each of these attributes on his fingers as he said them, emphasizing each one, his face glowing.
“It’s incredible,” he breathed, his voice soft with awe.
“And it gives me really interesting things to talk to people about,” he continued, so excited that the as-yet unknotted strings of his hakama lay forgotten. “The other day I was teaching an aikido class at the university, and I couldn’t help myself — I paused class and wrote all over the whiteboard.”
“‘Hey, you guys, you have got to see this!’” I imitated him saying, to show I understood.
“That’s right. Not that I’m going to adopt a more spoken-word style of teaching. It’s the physical experience that matters. But it’s really amazing.”
He was so comfortable, so full of light, that I’m not sure he noticed that I had finished folding my hakama long before he finished his, and sat with my hands resting very still on the compact square of black fabric — that I sat almost without moving at all. He may have realized as we bowed to each other at the edge of the mats that I had said almost nothing, and that my emotion was not immediately interpretable. A moment of self-consciousness flashed across his face, a moment that I would have erased if such a thing were possible.
For his joy was so beautiful, his freedom so profound, his years of discipline having brought to him an ability to move, to speak, and to feel, to receive and to respond, having brought him such openness that his heart poured out around him. I felt both peaceful and moved, sad and hopeful, and with a very old emotion, thought something you don’t say to someone you have just met.
It is everything I ever wished for you.
End note: It is everything I ever wished for you, with the exception of some things so fundamental I’m treating them as assumptions. Of course, I first wish for you your family, your faith, and your friends.
May peace be with you.
Many thanks to Eric Dobbs, the aikido instructor described in this essay.