by Margaret McNellis


I always thought my father had great hands. I think I judge people by their hands more than their eyes or smiles. I knew someone whose fingers turned up at the tips and made me think of a spider’s legs; as it happened, trust was never solid between us.

My dad had great hands with strong but slender fingers. His nail beds cradled perfectly trimmed nails—evidence of his fastidious nature. They were short but never cut to the quick. His knuckles were strong, though never bulged, despite years of cracking them. He was capable of the multi-knuckle crack. He would lace his fingers together, turn his palms away from his body, and straighten his arms. The resulting chorus of pops was a can-do-symphony, a sign of strength. Frailty could never withstand that.

Veins and tendons lined the backs of his hands. As a child, I wondered why my hands did not have those veins. Our hands were so alike in almost every way, including the unfeminine hairs between my first and second knuckles. In my early thirties, when I first saw definition of tendons and veins in my own hands while typing, I welcomed them. They signaled a transformation to adult hands, my father’s hands.

We shared other physical attributes as well. My hair has the same wave on my forehead. Not even straighteners can train that wave, and though it results in my feeling like I have an antenna on my head if I let my bangs get too long, I finally accepted it. We have the same eyebrows, which is unfortunate in a society that demands women have perfectly shaped brows. Unable to wax them due to allergies, and unwilling to pluck them because the tweezer makes me sneeze—and it’s never a good idea to sneeze while holding sharp metal near your eyeball—I keep my unibrow at bay with a tiny electric face razor.

We had the same facial structure too, wide at the eyes but not quite heart-shaped. The only difference? My father’s eyes were hazel; mine a chestnut-brown. We both received the McNellis nose, with a significant bump on the bridge that can be minimized only by wearing glasses.

When I was fifteen years old, my doctor determined that I did not have asthma, as previously assumed. Inhalers were doing nothing for my breathing difficulties. The problem wasn’t in my lungs or bronchial tubes, but rather, in my nose. Like most babies not born C-Section, I had a deviated septum, except it was deviated so badly that the left side of my nose didn’t work at all. Add to that seasonal allergies and any kind of sport that involved a good deal of running was out of the question. My parents elected that I should have surgery. I remember at the pre-op appointment, the surgeon asked if I wanted him to straighten my nose. I never believed in plastic surgery except for restorative purposes, so I vehemently refused. I still have the bump, and now, I’m glad for it. I’m glad that whenever I look in the mirror, I see my father. It doesn’t matter that I’m a female and he was not.

The night he died, in the hospice parking lot, my sister said she was sorry I was the local kid, who had to spend her summer at the hospital or beside our father’s sick bed. “But you were always little Jim,” she added. The bump on my nose. The unibrow. The wave in my hair that I can never tame. All of these things annoyed me at one time, but the similarities between my father’s hands and mine never did. After watching him fight and lose his battle with stage IV lung cancer, none of these resemblances cause me discomfort—quite the opposite, I treasure them.