My grandfather’s hands and what they taught me

I took photos of my grandfather’s hands the last time I saw him.

I knew it might be the last time I’d see him, despite finding him in reasonably good shape for a 98-year-old recovering from pneumonia.

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The clock was ticking on the energy in his body right down to his lung strength and the nerves in his fingers. (He had just burned them on a cup of tea.)

In the 98 years prior to this day, this man’s hands had achieved a lot.

His role at family events was often as videographer. In fact, he was obsessed with filming life. He even took a very early video camera across the Himalayas. It was shoulder-mounted, so, lucky for him, the Sherpa carried it.

He enjoyed finding new tasks and interests in a way I never have. I tell people that apart from the internet, I have no hobbies. But I have become obsessive about posting everyday moments on the iPhone app Instagram.

So, I think that following my grandfather’s death, looking for moments to capture may be one way my grandpa has changed me.

During one of the final walks I took with him around his endlessly intriguing Japanese rock garden, he told me that he had started creating dioramas. They were slightly kitsch but elaborate and often complicated scenes which involved plaster, paint, cement and miniature homes and residents often engaged in a cultural activity. Some were skiing in the alps, others were Chinamen fishing or even Japanese Geishas at a tea ceremony.

I asked him why he made them.

To pass the time, he said gruffly. “What else am I going to do?”

Collage of garden

My grandfather's garden

“I’ve got to do something with my hands.”

And so he created a Mount Fuji, replete with miniature skiers, a village, a main street and a contemplation room for the locals.

I knew it to be a contemplation room – for traditional tea ceremonies – because he also created a full size one for himself in another part of the backyard.

I guess he also gardened to take up the time and to keep his fidgety hands busy.

It was his garden, with its countless bonsai plants, handcrafted waterfalls and ponds was a land of wonder for all his grandkids.

It has levels, layers, from skyscraping elm trees to crafted rock platforms and meditative corners.

The centerpiece was a red, hand-made wooden bridge over a fish pond into which a fountain cascaded from further up the yard.

We used to beg my grandfather to turn on the pump to get the fountain going. It travelled about five metres through crevices, under rocky tunnels and around shrubs.

Maybe my childhood fascination with this water feature explains why I spent two years getting a fountain in place at my home. It’s a pitiful replica of his remarkable creation but I got a sense of the satisfaction that you get when your own hands created something.

Grand Designs host Kevin McCloud has a special way of describing this feeling.

Kevin says that most people pursue ‘Dopamine’ hits. It’s a cerebral sensation that comes when you buy something and it feeds materialism’s hold on our lives. It’s immediate but it is temporary.

He prefers the joy of serotonin, that feeling you get when you complete a task you have worked at, it could be a house or a puzzle, the fulfillment of finding a new route or presenting a meal.

I think my grandfather understood this and devoted a majority of his time to seeking it out in new and increasingly creative ways.

I am going to take that lesson and apply it to my life – with the knowledge that creating with your hands can reach beyond personal satisfaction and, through family and relationships you nurture, it can even benefit others in a kind of shared, serendipitous joy.

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2 responses to “My grandfather’s hands and what they taught me

  1. I love this Luke. Beautiful photos – you are gifted! Missing Grandpa alot too.

  2. Ben McLaughlin

    Great post mate. Fascinating.

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