The first thing my estranged cousin did when I met her was ask to see my hands.
Elizabeth took my hand in hers and looked at my finger tips. “They’re like mine,” she said.
I had never met Elizabeth. I didn’t even know she existed until she or her brother — I don’t remember which — wrote Dad a note after my mother’s obituary was published in the Yakima paper. You may not know us, the note said, but we are the children of your brother, Ed.
The year after Mom died, I took Dad to Yakima – a last chance, I thought, for him to see the old family home, connect with a few childhood friends before they were gone, and meet his niece and nephew.
Inspecting her fingers next to mine I saw no resemblance. Her fingers were delicate and tapered, capped by long nails that extended in white tips. Mine were of a sturdier sort, not ugly, but not something I would ever show with pride. I smiled and said nothing.
Elizabeth was looking for a connection, physical reassurance that she was a Campbell, like us.
My father had no doubts about her parentage. He accepted that Elizabeth and her brother were his niece and nephew. Family resemblance shone in their features. Though he loved his brother, who had so tenderly overseen the medical care of my sister Midge as she struggled with childhood leukemia, he could not understand how Ed could deny paternity. That rejection — the events leading up to it and following it — were part of the heritage of dysfunction that stemmed from their father.
I imagine that I am holding my father’s hand. Though he complained that they showed his age, I found them handsome. While Elizabeth’s fingers were thin and tapered, his were straight and square. His nails were near-perfect rectangles, the white base of his nail beds almost a straight line. The tips were filed to conform to the shape of his finger tips: neatly squared.
Mom and Dad often held hands. Especially when traveling in the car, he would reach over and clasp her hand. Her hand would linger in his.
As a teenager or young adult in the car with Dad, he would occasionally do the same with me. My hand would lay encased in the warmth of his. And it made me acutely uncomfortable. I had gotten to that age when physical affection, for more than brief moments, was awkward. If I snatched it away quickly, would it signal that I didn’t reciprocate his affection? What was the soonest I could gently withdraw my hand without seeming ungrateful?
By the time Dad moved here, Mom was gone. His primary physical connection was severed. Once Mom died, almost no one held him, rested their arm around his shoulder, reached over for the familiar three pats on the knee. Dad always said that we are a three pat family. Not one, or two, but three.
I had a special privilege as a daughter. Though my brothers hugged my Dad, and might rest their hand on his shoulder, they faced the added limitation of male-to-male contact. Or so I guess.
As I drove between my Dad’s assisted living community and my home, I often reached over and clasped his hand in mine. We would drive that way for a few miles, separating when I might need both hands to navigate an intersection. I no longer squirmed. I would feel the warmth of our hands together and think of the love that flowed between us.