“Look at the hands on him” said my youngest brother. We were in my father’s yard, helping him load pallets onto the back of a flatbed truck..
And yes my father’s hands were worn and strong. He was seventy-nine at the time or as he would put it, “in me eightieth year”.
When he was just another depression-era kid in rural Ireland, those hands had picked strawberries and sold them by the roadside to help support his family. They picked spuds alongside his Grandfather, a man would could barely write but could grow anything, a gift he passed to my Da. All his life my father had a gift of green-thumbs. Then, when as a teenager he decided he wanted something better and something more, those hands had pulled pints for hard men in mean pubs in a mean town. He dealt the cards and hustled snooker til the early morning, arriving home in the small hours, usually with money pocketed. Later he would work the local factory, then start his own businesses with trucks and haulage and smuggling. Then he tried his hands at bookie-ing, something with his lifelong love of horses and the sporting life, and a gift for calculation, seemed to fit him like a glove. His hands counted money, placed bets and took bets, loaded up dogs to go to late night dog tracks halfway across Ireland, looking for the next “stroke”.
And he loaded up my brother and me too.
My Dad relished coming in to the house and saying to my brother and me “C’mon with me”. We’d of course say “Where are we going?” and his reply was always, with a wave of the hand, “Just c’mon”. He would never tell, that would spoil the trip. Sometimes it was just a five minute trip out to see my Granny, but sometimes it was a trip to the greyhound races or some horse meeting where there was always “this horse in the fourth race” or some such.
We would pile in the car, still unsure as to our destination. Driving past my grandma’s road rather than turning up her lane was the signal that we were going at the very least to the ramshackle Navan dog track, or on those rare occasions, on a cross country trip to the far off exotic locales of Mullingar or Longford. Or maybe to Punchestown or Fairyhouse, or Laytown to watch the horse races on the strand before the tide came in.
My brother and I never tired of these trips, we loved being in the car with my Da and laid off our constant fighting for the duration. I’m sure my Da had that constant fighting in mind and took us to give my Ma a break. But I think he liked having us along too. He would have the 8-track blasting, usually Irish ballads or country music and we’d sing along as we drove. So we learned about dogs and horses and the little country towns we passed through, and what had happened there. We learned the words to dozens of songs and what they meant. We learned how you ordered a drink and placed a bet and “stopped” a dog and instructed a jockey. And we learned from men in flat caps who drank whiskey all night and still stood straight and tall and always had “something” for you “in the next race”.
They were my happiest times with him. And later, when we fell out badly, and didn’t speak for years, I’d think of those times. I’d remind myself of what was once good and happy and for us kids, carefree. And finally, when we came to an understanding, a reconciliation if you will, we’d laugh together at the stories and say “D’ye remember when…”.
So last Friday before they closed the lid on his coffin — “in his eighty-first year” he’d say — I touched his hands to wish him goodbye. I thought of a life lived in full and all of the good times and the happy times. I thought how he’d have loved the wake and all those people turning out for him. Most of all I thought how lucky I was to know him and that memories are a gift.