Hands Like Papa’s: Connecting With the Legacy of Past Generations

Cracked, gritty and determined hands built the greatest generation, and shaped the rise of Italian America.

By: Ed Iannuccilli, ISDA Contributor

“Edward, you have hands like Papa’s,” aunt Della blurted. “I can’t believe it.” Nor could I, though I’m sure she meant it as a compliment. She loved her father, respecting how hard he worked, but I would never have the hands of a man who did manual labor like him.

Papa was my grandfather. His hands were heavy, knuckley, gnarly and calloused. At ten, mine were soft, clean and except for a small knob on the side of my inner second finger where I choked the pen to write, had no calluses.

Perhaps Papa’s hands were trying to tell me something of what I might or should be one day. His were the hands of hard work; crooked, grubby, dirt under the nails, bruised with cuts, and with brown spots on the back that resembled the map of Europe. I watched him make cement one day. He was patching a square under our grape arbor.

I was transfixed watching him stirring the sand, water, stones because I knew this slurry would toughen to indestructibility. And I knew that at some moment, just before it hardened, he might let me scratch my name in his masterpiece.

I looked in his toolbox. It was not a box but a leather bag, cracked and crusted with dust, hardened plaster and cement. He was a cement worker in the days of the depression, given a chance to work by President Roosevelt’s WPA. In the toolbox were a hammer, a spade and all those things necessary to smooth, set and define cement.

“Grandpa, how do you know how to make cement, build a shed, plant a garden and  bury the fig tree?” He covered the fig tree every autumn and released every spring.

He paused, turned his head and looked up from his kneeling position. “I learna what I hafata ta. I makea what I hafata makea to helpa the family. You no wanna do this, Ed-a-wood. You wanna go to the school. Looka.” He put his tools down, slapped his hands together, spewing dust, and rotated those hands, palms to the sky. Those palms were as knotty, thick, scarred and as tough as the cement he was creating. Some wisps had seeped into the cracks. His fingers were bent.

“Thisa from harda work Ed-a-wood. I like-a to do. Mah, you. You must-a stay inna the school. Giva me your hand.” His hand was rough, moist and warm. He took my hand, spread my fingers and pushed it into the wet, cold, setting cement. He held it there for a moment and then released it. I looked.  My hand was imprinted into the cement that when dry, would be there forever on that slab in the rear yard under the grapevine. I looked at my palm. It looked a little like grandfather’s.

When the slab was done, it was the only section under the arbor with no grape stains and with a handprint, mine. Under it he scratched, “Edward, 1949.”

“Thanks, Grandpa.” He smiled.

The other day, I looked at my hands, palms up. They were soft, smooth and a reflection of a lifetime in one school or another. I turned them over and looked at the backs. Prominent veins, spots and wrinkles now crept into what once was smooth and unblemished. They bruise easily and the bruises turn brown and the brown lingers. My knuckles seem bigger.

Now, at least on the dorsal sides, I have hands like Papa’s. Aunt Della, I have hands like Papa, not gnarled or crooked, just exposed and aged.

Now, I understand what you meant. I would love to return to the yard to see if my handprint is still there.


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