The father and son stood on the corner in the afternoon sun. The father was about 30, the son eight of nine. Dressed against the slight cold, they hunched in together against a sudden gust and stood again, looking across the street for the walk signal. They exchanged a few words and then stood silently waiting for the light. They took each other’s hand. When it was their turn and traffic had come to a stop, they stepped into the street.
I watched them for as long as I could before having to pull away. There was something in their hand grasp that struck me. Late nights in the grocery store parking lot or crossing the street, just about anywhere where pedestrians and cars met, my father used to take my hand. If we were out as a family, we had to do the same thing.
A Christmas shopping trip: We were at the local mall, traversing the giant spaces under the roof from store to store, gathering more parcels and packages and bags as we went. We kids took our turns with the Santa in the center of the mall, sitting on the old man’s lap and trying to figure out why this just didn’t seem like the real thing. I remember the weave of the Santa’s beard’s backing, the artificial feel of the hair, and the sweat gathering at the man’s temples. He was in a rush. There were a hundred other kids in the line. The elf-helper shoved one kid forward as the Santa ejected another from his lap.
Bounced out of Santa’s Wonderland island onto the tile and into the crowds moving between stores, I stood there for a moment, wondering. The disappointment lay heavy on me. I wasn’t sure the connection I’d made with the fake Santa would find me Christmas morning showered with the gifts I’d asked for.
I stood there a moment, a little dazed, when I felt my father take my hand. We jostled through the crowds and out into the cold of a December night. The recent snow stood in piles where the plows had left it. A slight flurry blew about us. We went hand-in-hand to the car. Whatever the holiday brought, I knew I’d be all right in that moment.
As a kid, I imagined that we held hands in case one of us fell and needed help to get up. But watching that father and son, I realized holding hands meant something more. In the contest between pedestrian and car, the car always won. It’s not like we had a chance. But sticking together guaranteed a kind of safety. A kid alone behind a pack of adults could easily be overlooked. As a group, we could be more easily seen. There was safety in numbers.
We didn’t hold hands often. As a matter of fact, these street crossings were the only times I remember holding my dad’s, except when we found ourselves in big crowds. His was a big, knotty hand, calloused and strong. If I ever had a sense of being taken care of, it was in those moments. So much of the rest of family life was mine-ridden and arbitrary. Tempers flared often. The quiet of a Sunday afternoon could erupt in tirades about the forces arrayed against us and, more specifically, my father.
As a father myself, I always took the hand of my daughter when crossing the street. It was ingrained in me. This was just something you did as a father. I felt I could, in some small way, protect her against the hurdling masses of metal and glass. Often, as we crossed those streets and parking lots together, I felt a powerlessness before Detroit and Tokyo steel. It reminded me that a father can only do so much, and frequently had to stand despite the hopelessness of the outcome.
I also learned that holding hands kept my daughter from being separated from me in times of haste or in crowds. Through her, I understood my father’s actions and felt a kind of nostalgia for him. Regardless of what happened at home—and it could be a number of unsavory and hurtful things—deep down, he felt a responsibility for me. Maybe he didn’t want the trouble of having to look for a lost kid. There was that. But maybe, too, there was some genuine affection he could show, but only in these street crossings and in the hoards.
As a father myself, I made sure that I took my daughter’s hand when it was not necessary, when we were at home sitting in front of the television. She took it as a given, an act that was normal for family members, and not just when crossing the street. Holding hands meant affection, connection—an affirmation that she was not alone in the universe and that even in the face of absolute defeat, she would not be going at it alone.
In trying to communicate unspoken feelings and emotions with her, I remember inklings of these sorts of efforts on the part of my father. But he wasn’t good at it. I ached to find reasons to cross a street or get lost in a crowd so I would know the solidity of his grasp. I reached out from time to time when I was a kid, just to hold my dad’s hand. Each time, unless it was a street corner or parking lot or shopping mall, he slipped away.
When I was watching that father and son on the corner, I saw they grasped hands instinctively. They held onto each other though they would wait a few minutes to cross the street. Holding hands was instinctual, a normal act. I could tell they held hands other times, when the urgency of getting across the pavement was not present.
As I drove away, their image stayed with me. I can see it now. It transforms into my daughter and I sitting in the living room, watching television of reading a book or just walking down the sidewalk.
As I think about it now, I know I don’t hold my wife’s hand as much as I should. I don’t reach out in a way to let her know that she is not alone here. It’s something I have to be conscious about from now on. One can never hold hands enough.