Those men. They always shook hands. I learned early in life that those handshakes were a form of communication. All kinds of subtleties, rituals observed by grown men that took a lot of growing up for me to understand.
Big Manuel had hands that were thick and muscular, criss-crossed with the scars that illustrated his life and when he held your hand in his it felt as if they were covered by the bark of the oak trees that grew on the hills we grew up on. No man would have ever said “I love you” out loud, they did it by touch.
When we were little he just tousled your hair when he came in, perhaps put his hand on your shoulder. As you grew, he offered his hand. By the time you were a teen and as tall as he was, it was the whole shebang, the gravelly voice with a mild insult and a handshake that engulfed yours. The love he showed you, running like current from his heart to yours. God, how I loved that.
It’s how men of a certain time showed affection. The men and women in my family were subtle in that way and each had his own manner. It was a very small play, acted out between two people, seldom varying in its simplicity, which was its charm.
Garrison Keillor had his Minnesota bachelor farmers and we had our farmer uncles, some of our blood and some adopted in friendship.
My Grandmothers brothers, Uncles John, Bob, Tom and her brother in law Olin. There was my dad’s brother uncle Jack or Jackie as he was universally known. We had another uncle Bob on my mothers side and my uncle Ray who was an uncle by marriage.
So, bunches of them. Some we saw often, others, not so much. For many years when I was growing up, the entire Shannon and Gray families got together during the holidays. Uncle John Gray, he of the pin-stripe suits and deep, deep growl of a voice, stood up very straight when he shook your hand. Aunt Eva, always perfectly coiffed, invariably dressed in a grey suit and smelling richly of powder would offer her soft hand, light as a butterfly. My grown cousin Iva Jean offered her little hand palm down, the fragile bones light as as a birds wing. She was a giggly girl, though she was in her forties. She was a simple woman, kind and loving. My uncle Bob Gray was short and wiry with a shiny bald head and he shook with the vigor of a life long farmer. My dad’s brother uncle Jackie shook with his arm akimbo, his right elbow swung out and his hand diving down on yours like a hawk on a mouse, a firm economical grip. My grandmother Annie, she of the Lace Curtain Irish. used her left hand which you softly gripped from the side with your left, your fingers slipped across the index finger and next to her thumb, and always delivered with a soft kiss on her cheek. When she was dressed up she floated in a cloud of White Shoulders, even today the scent evokes memories of her. My grandfather, “Big Jack” Shannon shook hands with a hearty “My blessed boy.” He left no doubt he cared for you.
They had all been born in another century and formality was like wearing a suit of clothes. They all walked in the histories of their time. The view in our kitchen was more inward than outward. Not in the sense that they were unsophisticated, but rather in a way that valued honesty, formality and steady friendship as the anchors of their lives. Manuel, Johnny, Oliver and those other men who sat and drank coffee at our kitchen table, did not talk out of school. Personal opinions were never voiced in front of children, or, I think, in front of wives. Dad’s friends seem homogenous to me, not in the way they dressed or walked to our door, but in their opinions about what mattered the most to them.
They played by the rules they had established for themselves. The big boy rules. They were hard to define and were slightly different for each. No one wrote them down and they weren’t easy to know but you were expected to do what you said you you would do, no questions asked, no excuses given. It was agreed that you paid for your own mistakes. Your problem was yours to accept and deal with. They took the best from each other and ignored the rest. Favors agreed to were freely given. It seemed to me as a child that these were the rules under which the universe was governed. It was a brotherhood of sorts and lasted for life.
Of course, it was all kind of a con job. They knew secrets; they differed on things, but they found no reason to share the petty with us. They had all experienced horror, sadness and despair but nothing of those experiences was ever shared. We learned about casual cruelty in school. When you were undone by events, these steady, anchored men let you know that all could be well in the world. They felt no need to apologize for being who they were. They were the men of the Depression, the World War, born in a time of want, a need that could only be satisfied by hard work. They were used.
You might say they were simple people from another era and different mindset. They worked hard, they rarely read. They talked of land, food and weather. But is was more than that. My dad and his friends were steady people, they’d be quiet rather than lie, they were as good as their word and they were generous to a fault. You could count on them. They told you all you needed to know about them with just a touch of the hand.
When Big Manuel died, he wasn’t rich in possessions, he didn’t drive a fancy pickup and no one would have ever said he was a big shot. No, instead of that, he possessed the greatest thing a man can have, friends. Not just ordinary friends either, but men who, each believed with all their heart, that they were his best friend.
Status meant little to them. They valued the little things that made a life. When my father died and was buried, Manuel’s grandson came to the funeral and introduced himself to the family and said “My father was out of town and couldn’t attend, but he called me and said that I had to come and represent the family because he and my grandfather would have wanted to honor your family in that way.”
They are all gone now, but they left us a legacy, their children and their children’s children. Grown up now, they don’t hug, they still stick out their paw and shake your hand.