My grandmother's hand is in motion, fingers straight, her black cigarette holder fitted one of her very occasional Viscounts, dipping to the gleaming ashtray beside her, then resting again, elbow drawn close to her side. Pale, scented wrist (powdery, rosy Fleurs de Rocaille), half-folded hand, an elegant line. The curl of smoke, the slim platinum wedding band and the tiny gold watch, and above them a slightly raised eyebrow and a wry smile.
My father steeples his fingers against his trim auburn moustache as he listens to me carrying on earnestly about -- something. He pauses and answers and splays his freckled fingers into a rake, as if collecting his counter-arguments and bouncing them lightly forward: Here. Here you are.
He typed with four of those fingers, hammering in bursts and pauses, trained by years of composing at a tall newsroom Underwood, when he had to get it right, mostly, the first time, when the end of the story was -30- and a copyboy took it away, and the typographers arranged column after column, stacking thick wafers of lead -- they set words backward; they were geniuses, he said. Jangling black phones, awful cigars, pressmen in newspaper hats. Dateline, byline, cutline, masthead.
When he wrote, once, about his father's hands, he surprised me with his lyricism. They had always clasped hands in greeting -- one downward pump, no embrace. ("Welcome home, sir," he said solemnly as they shook hands on the platform at Union Station upon his father's return from years at war.)
My grandfather had long and tapered fingers, Dad wrote -- skilled surgeon's hands, smooth and healing hands. I remember them roughening during his hobby-farm retirement, when he tapped maples, tended orderly rows of potatoes, asparagus, corn, pointed toward the green horizon: look. Holstein, Jersey, Guernsey. Tassel, husk, silk, kernel.
They taught me left from right, my grandparents, during one of my many long stays with them. My parents were often expecting a baby and I was often sent, happy to go, away to the country place, the little farm. There were no babies when I came home, each time I came home, though there was a wonderful one much, much later. But before her there was a fiercely bitten-back sadness, a silence where there might have been babies.
Mother's fingertips in motion against each other, scouring at her nails, tiny, creased and peeled.
I would return to the same spot in my grandparents' front hallway, my own hands outstretched, to sort it out anew: Left is the dark painting on the panelled wall. Right is the flagstone-edged fireplace and my grandfather's chair, where he sat watching me -- his tired and serious eyes -- amused.
Directions got bigger (and they still baffle me regularly; I am always lost in a parking lot.) One way, then the other, my father turned me on the sidewalk at the foot of our street. The shops are south. The St. Clair subway station is south. Keep going south and your feet will be in the lake. Away from all that is north. And if you keep going north, more or less, you will be at the farm again. Face it and reach out your hands: the left is west and sunset, the right is east and morning.
The lowering sun is bright against the edges of our house, darkening it fast, sinking behind the arching elms, Toronto elms that succumbed to disease soon after. I am a bit dizzy and thinking of suns slipping beneath me, spinning sideways somewhere I cannot see and springing up unbidden somewhere on the other side, right, east, behind the next neat block.