I remember his hands. I loved those hands. Behind closed eyes, I see them now. Gnarled and thick-knuckled, grooved and lined, the veins roping over sturdy bones, the large, square nails, pared with a knife.
This many years later, at an age that I remember him while only beginning to know myself at this half-century mark. My half century measured against his. Then, I was a little scampering bit of trouble at his knees. Now, he lives behind my closed eyes, his blood a potent blend with mine.
I can still feel their strong yet gentle grip. Today, November 2nd, is my grandfather’s birthday. I refuse to count the years. I know only, with a sense in my physical body, more than a calculation of the mind, that he has been gone from me a long, long time. It is an amputation.
Odd, how we had the same pet name for each other. The rest of the family called him Vecais Papitis, or Old Pappy, while I called him – Samtins. Samts is the Latvian word for velvet. With the addition of a diminutive ending, he was my soft place of comfort, my warm and gentle heart. In return, he called me the same: his “mazais Samtins.” The little velvety one.
He was my first great love. At family gatherings, where the very young were a nuisance and the very old, the same, the two of us always seemed to find our way to each other, in some tucked away corner of the busy room. The rest, they thought my childish chattering too silly and simple. His stories, repeated a thousand times and yet again, had faded to a drone in their ears. Yet to Samtins, my chattering seemed always great wisdom, a call to pondering the mysterious and grand world I was so eager to explore and he equally eager to guide me. To me, his tales were an open book of adventure, a history of the world behind me, and I never tired of hearing them. There was the land he worked in Cesis, Latvia. The days of being a postmaster in Riga. The war that tore him from his land, so that he and my grandmother, my mother and her brother, ran through the dark forests and followed the rails, all the way to Germany. How brave he had to be …
He was small in stature, thin and wiry, so thin that even in sweltering summer he wore two, even three shirts, suspenders holding up his pants. Yet his strength seemed something of myth and legend to me. Indeed, when I heard later that he had participated in the Olympics in his youth, won a medal in jiu-jitsu, wrestled in the light-weight division, I was pleased but not surprised. I’d always known he was a warrior. My first and ever knight in shining armor. The only knight who would never, not once, disappoint me. Even when I’d reached my adult height, as soon as I saw him, I’d race into his arms and he’d grip me in those steely, great hands and lift me up, twirl me around him, until we were both laughing. He was my Atlas who never shrugged.
When he died, I knew myself alone for the first time. No knight to guard me. No great and gnarled hands to gently touch my cheek. No ear to hear my nonsense stories. I found my way to his closet, buried my face in his old tweed jacket, smelled his scent, my history, and understood fully, at last, I had lost my soft spot of velvet in an ever-shifting world.
I think of you today. I miss your hands. I am empty, still, where you were.