Saturday, December 29, 2012


This morning my good friend and neighbor Joe went home to be with the Lord.  In his memory, I am reposting the story that I wrote about Joe.  I learned so much from him over the years.  He taught Bill and me how to build a deck.  He taught Lulu how to play the harmonica.  He taught Katie how to drive.  Mostly, he taught me how important it is in life to slow down and pay attention to the little things.

My heart is broken over the loss of my friend, but I know that he was ready to go.  He wanted to be at peace, and his life was not peaceful over these past two years.  I know that his wife and his good friend and buddy, Bobby were waiting for him and that his soul is resting in God's arms.

This story, "Handprints" embodies Joe's spirit.  It reminds all of us what matters in life.  Everyone who reads this today should take some time to reflect on those people who matter to us.  Take the time to tell them they matter.  Love them.

I visit him on a regular basis; at least three to four days a week.  He lives just across the street, so I don’t have to go out of my way to stop by; however I find that I often become so engrossed in everyday living that I let other things get in the way.  I know that he looks forward to my visit.  We sit in the old rusty beach chairs and sip on cold beers as we talk about the “good ole’ days.”  He always has so many stories to tell about growing up on the farm.  Inevitably, he’ll make a comment about how he and his brother would have broken my horse in less than a day (I’m going on three months now without much progress).

I listen contentedly as he strolls down memory lane.  “Sure n’ough would’ve broke that horse.  Me and my brothers would work our mules to the bone all day long and then ride ‘em down the dirt road well into the night.  Them mules were so tuckered out, they ain’t never had the energy to hurt one of us.  Your horse there – she’s got too much pent up energy.  That’s her problem.  No doubt about it.”

He’d go on and on about my horse, and I’d get to feeling guiltier and guiltier as the conversation wore on.  I knew I didn’t spend enough time with the horse, but it isn’t my horse!  It is my fourteen-year-old daughter Katie’s horse.  I remind Joe that I made it clear to Kaite that she and I would be breaking this horse together.  The “breaking of the horse” lasted about fifteen minutes.  I wasn’t doing anything right in Katie’s eyes, and she was doing nothing but bellyaching in my eyes.  The entire horse breaking session ended with the two of us breaking down and the horse running away.

So, this is how it goes:  I sit with Joe, and he scolds me about the horse, and I make excuses for my lack of enthusiasm and commitment to “taking the bull by the horns” or, in this case, “the horse by the reins.”

Joe and I often talk about how busy I always am; coming and going on a non-stop merry-go-round.  It’s a wonder the horse, goats, chickens, cat and dogs even get fed!  Joe tells me how short life is and how I should slow down and start playing my banjo more often.  I always promise him that I will take his advice and I always fail miserably come the next day.

One day I was pondering my hectic schedule of teaching, birthing goats, taxiing children, grocery shopping, cleaning, and paying bills when Joe got up to get us another beer.  As he made his way to the sliding glass doors, my six-year-old daughter came bounding up his steps, arms outstretched, ready to give “Mr. Joe” a big hug.  He took her in his arms and told her he had just bought some chocolate covered ice cream cones that very day.

Her huge brown eyes lit up, and she asked, “Do you have cherries too?” 

“‘Course’ I do, Lulu!”  Joe responded, “What’s a super duper ice cream cone without a cherry on top?”

Lulu smiled and giggled as they made their way into the house to make the cone.  I watched them go, hand in hand, and I grinned at the portrait they presented: Joe's twisted rugged hand encircling the small black hand (Lulu is from Haiti).  Joe's old legs moving slowly as Lulu's young legs slowed to keep pace.  Joe's aged, wrinkled face smiling down at Lulu's young expectant face.

I thought to myself, “This is what life is all about.”  It’s about the little things that make you smile and leave lasting imprints on your mind like footprints in the sand or handprints on a wall: Those little flickering moments that are forever woven into the tapestry of our lives.

Joe started to pull at the sliding glass door, and Lulu reached up to help him.  She placed both her hands squarely on the glass and pushed with all her might.  When she released her hands, Joe pointed to the prints she left behind.

“Look, Lulu!”  He said, “We have a new set of handprints to add to the collection!”

Lulu laughed as she examined all the handprints that covered the glass door.  “Are these mine?”  She asked as she pointed to some smudges just above hers.

“Sure they are.”  Mr. Joe assured her.  "Yours are the most important handprints I have."

They made their way inside and occupied themselves with the making of the super duper ice cream cone.

I stayed behind in my dilapidated beach chair, and I reflected that just yesterday I yelled at Lulu for getting her handprints on the wall.  I handed her a spray bottle and, scolding her, instructed her to wash all the handprints away.

“Wash all those handprints off the wall!”  I yelled, “You should know better than to dirty the walls that your daddy just painted!”

Somewhere in the corner of my mind, I heard myself saying the same words to my oldest daughter, Jennifer.  She’s in college now.  Her handprints are long gone from our house.  They’ve been painted over or washed away.  They’ll never be back.  Nor will my daughter, Katie’s handprints or all the handprints of our 53 foster kids.  My son’s handprints too; they’re gone from his grimy room that always had the distinct smell of boy.  In place of his handprints is our office – gray and devoid of any remnants of boyhood.

I pondered, “Are there any handprints left?”

The melancholy that overtook me was instantaneous, and I had the sudden urge to grab Lulu in my arms, rush home, dip her hands in mud and tell her to get busy dirtying the walls!

Joe and Lulu made their slow decent down the steps and quietly sat relishing their ice cream cones.  I sipped my beer and eyed the sliding glass door.

Joe caught me contemplating the handprints and remarked, “You know I never wash that glass door.  Every one of those handprints reminds me of my little visitor here.  I look at those handprints when I’m eating alone at night or feeling lonely for my wife, and they take away the heartache.  I guess I could wash them off, but it just wouldn’t be the same without them.”

Wiser words were never spoken.

In the scheme of life does it matter if there are handprints on the wall?  Absolutely! It matters.  It matters because one day they’ll be grown and gone.  It matters because one day you’ll walk through an empty sanitary house and wonder where all the handprints went.  It matters because when you’re old and gray, handprints are as important as talking with your neighbor and eating ice cream cones on cool summer evenings.  Handprints matter.  They just do.  I wish I had kept a happy memory for every handprint I washed off the wall.  I wish I had never washed them off the wall at all, but then again, it’s not too late to start.