“Digging” by Seamus Heaney and some thoughts about my grandfather’s hands.

Digging by Seamus Heaney.001Today I read “Digging” by Seamus Heaney:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it,

It got me thinking about my grandfather. I remember him as a tall, lean, straight-backed man, whose large big-knuckled, calloused hands were seldom idle.

Family legend tells me that he started to earn his hands at fourteen when, at his local County Fair in Ireland, he was auctioned off to a farmer whom he would serve for two years. Later, after moving to England, his hands helped to dig the first Mersey Tunnel. He always said he was a good man with a pick and a shovel.

When he was my age, he was still four years from retirement at the local margarine factory. No shovels there but no idle hands either. The last work his hands did, when retirement left him restless, was a tap-man in his local pub, rolling metal barrels of Guinness and beer into the cellar and making sure the pumps worked as they should.

I’m sixty-one years old and my hands are soft. The only callouses come from where the base of my wedding ring touches my untested palm and a small indentation in my finger from the decades when I used a pen and not a keyboard to make my way through school and university and junior management jobs where only the secretaries typed. Now, even the pen is gone and I do much of my work with my clumsy thumbs on keyboards that aren’t really there.

Sometimes I wonder what my grandfather would think of me if we met now over a Guinness at his old pub. Would my hands fill him with disdain or pride? Or would he instead look me in the eyes and try to see there if I had worked as a man should to give my family a roof over their heads and food on the table?

The connection is hard to see and I’ve perhaps come to the consideration of it later than I should have done.

I earned my hands through choices he didn’t have. What we have in common is that  we both earned our hands by doing what we thought we needed to do.


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