From my father, I have inherited the hands to interpret the world as I see it. His crooked fingers, resemble the branches of a twisted mesquite; maimed by years of wrestling with iron, tools, hot tar and steel.
Those hands, once cupped my young hand, my brothers’ and my sister’s. Taking each hand for a gentle ride over canvas, paper, and occasionally, wood. Small lessons, here and there, now and then, from artist to apprentice, but valuable nonetheless.
I never quite knew how to connect with my tired father, who worked late into many a night as a machinist, a mechanic, and later as the foreman of a local plant. Each night at sunset, some of my brothers, my sister, or I would make our way to his truck up the driveway, and wrestle each other for the leftovers in his tin lunchbox like a half eaten BLT, or a bean and chorizo taco. We’d accompany him up the wooden steps to our home on Velma Street, letting the old wooden screen door ricochet behind us as we followed him in.
Every night, we each found our way in and out of woven conversations around my mother’s kitchen table; each of us interjecting all at once because with eight in the nest, you soon learn to be the loudest to have the chance to be heard.
Every dinner, a show and tell. I sometimes used these moments to either show him my newest pair of patent leather Mary Janes bought at the Sears Roebuck downtown, because it was my turn to get the free pair of shoes from the shoe club this time, or show him an art or social studies project from school.
“Pretty good,” he’d respond, though worn out from a long day in the blazing sun. “Very nice, very nice!”
Pretty good meant, keep trying. I never took it as defeat; It was pretty good. Not great like his work, but still…it had potential.
As he sat the head of the table, as he still does today, talking to my mother about current events or going through the hierarchy of things in need of repair around our home, he would pull a pencil from the pocket protector and doodle as he spoke.
Small lessons appeared now and then; sometimes on two-point perspective, cross-hatching, or proper shading techniques to show the origins or the differences in lighting when completing a sketch. Mostly, I would watch, with my chin on my wrists, and elbows to the side, like a mindful pup. If I spoke too much, or asked too many questions while he spoke to my mom, I risked frustrating him or being shooed off.
Ambidextrous, he switched freely between both hands; the byproduct of the days when his left hand was tied behind his back in primary school, lest people think he was simple minded.
After a serving of the usual sopa like fideo con carnita de rez, o arroz con pollo, he would retire to the large recliner in the living room, in front of an old black and white T.V. No remote controls back then, just one of us taking turns to rotate the old rotary dial back and forth with little hands or sometimes with tenazas from his tool box.
“Déjalo solo—Leave him alone,” my mother would caution me each time I scurried past him in his reclining chair, fighting the urge to wake him; talk to him, or just ask for permission to change the channel back to “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” or “Family Affair.” Sometimes I would stand close by, watching his eyeballs travel like windshield wipers- back and forth, beneath his lids; in deep REM.
I still remember his dark blue work shirt, with his sleeves curled up around his solid arms covered in oil or barsol. I know that smell and that taste very well. It is the taste of his forehead, seasoned with tiny droplets of sweat, that I kissed each night, and blessed with a tiny cross before turning in to bed. Some nights, like many nights, that’s all I would get.
Each night, the routine was the same: homework, a warm dinner, criss-cross conversations, followed by my turn at the one bathroom and shower in the house. Later, a prayer by the bedside with my mother, and into the cool sheets of a bed shared with my sister, Chach.
If he wasn’t too tired, he would retire into his garage to fiddle with wires, tools, and sometimes wood. Really, there was never any rest, as there was always something that needed fixing around the house.
On weekends, after the chores of the house and everyday repairs, I could always find him in his workshop, with drawings and plans on small spiral notebooks of graph paper scattered about. “Schematics,” he’d say. “Some invention or tool I’m working on.”
Many years passed. His routine, much the same. Working from sunup to sundown. Ruminating, repeating the same motions day in and day out to put food on the table, or to buy us things we needed for school. Till one day, after his heart beckoned him to slow down, he decided to retire.
The man who worked his entire life, sunup to sundown, now stood there before us wondering how to fill his day. With some encouragement from my sister, my mother and I, he headed off to the library to research books on woodcarving—an artform he dabbled in as a young man, but with never enough time to bring his drawings of carvings to life.
“Cuidado,” he would caution, as I’d reach for his tools when I stopped by to visit. The sharp blades, burners and the brushes, stood there like soldiers, ready for duty to carve a block of wood into something wonderful: animals in motion, caricature carvings, a sailboat, and maybe even a silly monkey carved from a peach pit, a trick he learned as a young boy.
“You see the shape of the wood… you see. You follow the grain, and then it sort of tells you what it can become.”
These are just memories of his hand cupping mine. Guiding my craft. Later, much later, he would watch as mine traveled alone in a different medium all together. For me, it’s not a line on paper, or in the grain of the wood. For me, it’s a story line—from beginning to end.
Even today, with everything new that I try to do, he is there, watching, teaching, and guiding my hand. His voice is stern, but cautious.
“Careful. Just let go.”
Each line of my pencil a road that takes me from my insides to a new place and back.
“And the mistakes?” I ask…. “How do I fix the mistakes.”
“There are no mistakes, just new visions or new perspectives. Ehhh, but if you’re not happy with it, you can always erase, toss it out or paint over.”
Sometimes, when we’re at dinner, I lay my hands next to my parent’s hands. They have begun to show their age, theirs and mine. Hands. Their hands.
Arthritis and years of hard work robbing them of mobility and strength.
From my father, I have the smooth and steady hands to create the world as I see it.
—Dolores S. Pérez