all of the selves we Have ever been
“A thundering velvet hand...”
“A gentle means of sculpting souls”
Those are the words that Dan Fogelberg used to describe his father, a school band director. After the song,
Leader of the Band, became a hit, Fogelberg said in an interview that if he had written only one song, Leader of the Band would be it. His father was surely someone remarkable and loved.
Another singer-songwriter, Bill Withers, wrote and sang about the hands of his maternal grandmother, Lula Galloway, with whom Withers attended church on Sunday mornings. Lula used those gnarled hands to clap and sing in church and to protect and nurture her grandson. Withers wrote “Grandma's hands picked me up each time I fell…If I get to heaven I’ll look for Grandma’s hands.”
We are each born with our lives in someone else’s hands. Throughout life, we rely on safe hands. Kind hands. Gentle hands. We remember the helping hands.
In our family, we are all thumbs.
When my son Sam was a toddler, we had a bedtime routine. I would lie down beside him for a few minutes as he settled into sleep. Sam would wrap his chubby little hand around my thumb, and I would sing as he fell asleep. At bedtime one busy evening, I was unable to stop what I was doing in order to get Sam to bed. My daughter Emily, Sam’s sweet and earnest big sister by three years, said, “I’ll lay down with you, Sam. You can hold my thumb.”
Sam shook his head. “No, Em-a-wee. I need a BIG fum.”
I understand. I had a big “fum” when I was a child. That big thumb was attached to the right hand of my Uncle John. He was not a band leader, but Uncle John did have one of those thundering velvet hands. He was a gentle soul and a giant in my life story. He deserves his own song. Uncle John made it his mission to shape the souls of a huge tribe of nieces and nephews in addition to those of his own five children.
I don’t know how it began or why, but whenever Uncle John came into our presence, he extended his hand, “Touch thumbs,” he would say, and our little fums shot up, and we made contact. It was a safe and convenient display of affection, especially when Uncle John was in the driver’s seat transporting a station wagon full of squirming children to the swimming pool or the custard stand. Before he started the engine, Uncle John would turn to face us, extend his right hand, thumb up, and each of us would jockey to reach him and touch our thumb to his. The journey did not begin until each of us had made contact. Towel? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Seen and loved? Check. Check.
Sometimes on a Sunday morning, Uncle John would slide into the church pew next to me. He might reach out his thumb or wrap his hand around mine. Once in a while his hand would slip a silver or gold bracelet into my pocket. Often when we parted, Uncle John would slip a twenty dollar bill into the palm of each of the gathered nieces and nephews. He continued the tradition long after we all became working adults.
Nothing escaped Uncle John’s view, but he never used those hands to “stir the pot,” an amazing accomplishment in a large and highly emotional extended family with enough teenagers for plenty of trouble.
Touching thumbs was an act that never got old or lost its power.
When my daughter Emily was born, a C-section turned to near-disaster with a life-threatening hemorrhage. After a touch-and-go stay in the intensive care unit, I was sent to a regular room on the obstetrics unit. Just settled in my bed still surrounded by IV poles, so full of fluid I could not blink my eyes or bend my knees, I turned my head to the left, and there was my Uncle John and his wife Aunt Janet. Upon seeing them, I began to weep. All of the terror and exhaustion of the past few days came bursting out of me. They came to the bedside. Uncle John’s jaw was tense, his lips tight and twitching at the right corner as he blinked away his own tears. He reached for my left hand and touched my thumb with his. We were frozen in a moment of terrifying what-could-have-been and then relief. The healing power of big fums!
Many years later, I would stand in an intensive care unit alongside the bed of my cousin Marcia, Uncle John’s baby girl. A heart catheterization turned disaster. Marcia did not open her eyes. As the ICU nurse sorted the tubes and monitored the equipment, I wanted the nurse to know that this woman, our Marcia, was someone special. I told the nurse about Marcia’s life and accomplishments, and then I touched Marcia’s left thumb with mine. By morning, Marcia was gone.
When it is my turn, and I get to heaven, I’ll look for those hands.
I will know them by their thumbs.
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