When I was very small my father would hold out one finger for me to grip when we walked together. His hands were huge, and somewhat legendary in my little town. To this day kids who were coached by Papa will bump into myself or my brothers and recall how "Mister O" would catch bumblebees or hornets and hold them by their wings. His fingers, big as sausages, were so calloused and tough the bee would struggle, trying to get its stinger through the outer husk of his thumb and forefinger to absolutely no avail. After freaking all the kids out he'd laugh and release it.
They loved him.
I loved him too, of course, and always will. I was a little bit jealous of the other children he coached. Even as a girl I knew that they got the cream off the top of him-- never having to face his anger or disappointment, always getting the praise and encouragement. By the time I was old enough to realize how those "bad" parts were most likely doing me some good I was also old enough to realize the jealousy was silly at best; petty at worst. And no matter how much of him those other children stole, that finger-- the same finger he'd point at me when I'd strayed-- was all mine.
There would be new children in his life, even more dear. When my brothers began to have kids I saw a glimmer of that magic-- an incredible swell of protective fierceness, a wonder of absolute and unconditional love. With these tiny hands I was willing to share that finger... and offer my own. Now as the two youngest grandchildren have gone off to school there are crosswalks and sidewalks to navigate, clammy digits curled around larger ones.
My father is retired now. He still has traces of his southern accent, Virginia smoke curling around the edges of his speech. When my nephew announced, just the other day, that Papa didn't work in "that place anymore cuz he's retarded," I knew he was just pronouncing the word the way his grandfather does.
My retar-- err-- retired father spends more time with these last two little ones-- the sons of his youngest son-- than anyone else.
This past week Papa tried to show off for one of the kids. He grabbed a bumblebee round and plump as a grape by the wings and showed it proudly to his grandson. It stung him almost immediately.
Not as tough as he used to be. The callouses have worn thin. But his finger is still just right for holding on. And these days, as I watch him struggle up a flight of stairs, or puff a good bit more than he used to lifting some vaguely domestic weight, I marvel at how anyone can change so much without losing the core of stone that has always defined him. When all is said and done he's really the same solid, honest, good man he was. A little softer, these days... but so are the smaller fingers reaching for his larger one.
Happy Father's Day, Papa.