The Hands Of Time

“He makes it look so easy, look so clean. He moves like God’s immaculate machine. He makes me think about all of these extra moves I make and all this herky-jerky motion and the bag of tricks it takes to get me through my working day …”

--Paul Simon

In the summer of 1984 in New York City, I was dropping off resumes after college and looking for work. Acting like I had a real purpose and knew where I was headed, I had stars in my eyes and expected things to happen in the “Big Apple.” I stopped at a finger-smudged storefront window where a man inside was twirling a pizza high into the air. I’d seen this in cartoons, but never live. He was really good and carried on a casual conversation as his nimble hands stretched and spun the dough. I couldn’t take my eye off his steady, sure hands. With all my career anxiety, I found some comfort in the clean simplicity of his task; he was already a success in New York.

On a spring evening in 1990, as my wife and I left Cancun, Mexico, and headed to Cozumel, I noticed the little hopper plane taking us to the island was flown by an aged and tired-looking pilot. While we were in flight, some technical difficulties occurred on the ground, and the lights on the landing strip suddenly went dark. I watched the pilot calmly pull out of his descent and come around for another attempt at landing. The lights were still out. Calmly, he pulled a pencil from his breast pocket and held it before his eyes in a vertical fashion, then in a horizontal manner. He made some mental acknowledgement for himself and began the descent. As I looked out the front window in virtual darkness, I could not believe the risk he was taking, but I could see the calm, fluid movement of his hands. The impact of the landing was practically undetectable. I shook those steady hands gratefully as we left the plane. He just smiled. Suddenly, he didn’t look old, just experienced.

My Father’s Hands

When I was a boy, my dad had a habit of resting his hand on the back of my neck when we walked together. To the average onlooker, it may have looked as if I was being arrested, but it was his way of keeping track of me in a crowd. As I grew, that habit never changed and often, on the way into a restaurant or other business, he’d grab me as before. He was a powerfully built man, and years of sports and metallurgy gave those hands a strong grip. After more than a dozen years since his passing, the memory of his steady hand on my neck is still with me, the security of having a confident father protecting me.

My Mother’s Hands

Mom’s hands, though, were always warm. They were the hands that felt for fever, the hands that reached out for a hug. They were soft, yet strong, and smelled of detergent and dish soap, of the Jergen’s lotion she applied at night or the Vick’s Vapor Rub that helped my asthmatic lungs find air. A few years ago, as I lay on a hospital gurney recovering after tests for stomach irregularities, those hands were stroking my hair.

My wife was holding my hand with a totally different feel.

My Wife’s Hands

My wife’s hand is the one I put the ring on. The one I hold when we walk together, the one that squeezes mine when the movie gets scary or the doctor stitches one of our kids. Those hands can scold yet fly up when our kid scores a big goal. I love watching her hands make an omelet. The clean efficiency of movement, the ability to roll and fold it without breaking it as it glides out of the pan onto the plate. I’ve known my wife for more than 20 years, and I still get a nervous sensation when those hands come to rest on mine as we sleep, when we are driving, or when we take in the moment common to long-time couples who have been through challenging times together.

My Teacher’s Hands

I had a shop teacher who could apply a rasp to a wooden edge and make it smooth as glass. His hands were enormous, yet agile. He made a bigger impact with three strokes of that file than I could with 20. He was an amazing woodworker, but probably the most humorless man I’d ever met. Since he always warned about wearing safety goggles, my buddies and I set up a joke one day. They put all their goggles on my head--20 pairs--which covered every square inch of my face. I walked into his office during class as my buddies watched. “Mr. Cowles, I got something in my eye.” He put his pencil down, looked at me without smiling, and said in a flat tone, “Go see the nurse.”

Other Hands

My grandfather the barber had sure hands.

Though marred and calloused by years of hauling coal and ice in his first career, his hands were still nimble after years of barbering. I watched those hands fly over the heads of would-be “hippies” who had scored their first job interviews, and were gracefully turned into gray-flanneled businessmen within minutes. My childhood buddy who became a blacksmith can take a bar of raw steel and make beautiful decorative railings and fireplace tools.

The other day, my wife and I replaced her cell phone, and the technician tested, upgraded, programmed, and replaced it all in about two minutes. His hands just took flight over the keyboard, striking the keys with certainty.

I recall when I was 13 holding the hand of a girl I thought was special. We were watching The Sting at the movies with a group of friends, and once our hands locked, I was unable to eat my popcorn because one hand was in hers and the other had to steady the box. I’d pretty much lost my appetite by then anyhow.

I held my dad’s hand as he took his final breath on a hospital gurney when his heart gave out a dozen years ago. His ruby ring has been on mine since that night. It was the one his brother, my godfather, wore until his untimely death 17 years prior to my dad’s passing. It was hard to let go of that hand; sometimes I’m not sure that I have.

A Doctor’s Hands

But a year later, my newborn son wrapped his fingers around my thumb and bellowed loudly as he announced to the world he had arrived. An especially large baby, he had practically killed his tiny mother upon delivery, but again, the sure hands of Dr. Deepak Arora kept her safe and brought my son into the world.

A few years ago, she visited that doctor for annual tests. In the waiting room, I saw the walls covered with baby pictures. A picture of my son Sam and me hung in the center of the room with the accompanying letter that thanked him for saving my wife and bringing new life into our world. “Clearly, she was in good hands,” I’d written. Two years ago Dr. Arora made another impact when he detected signs of pre-cancerous cells in Cindy. After Cindy’s surgery, he saw me in the recovery area and, putting his hand on my shoulder, told me she was going to be fine. I was so grateful, and his strong, steady grip was so sincere, that heaved a big sigh. “You’ve saved her twice and brought life to my little boy as well. I can’t find the words to thank you.” He put a hand on each shoulder and looked me squarely in the eye. “You just did,” he said, and felt his hands squeeze my shoulders. I watched him walk away as he efficiently put the stethoscope into his lab coat pocket with his miraculous, healing hand.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail at