The Hands Tell the Story

D. E. Larsen, DVM

The photo above is of my mother’s family, and this picture is an icon of the Davenport family.

 It was taken on September 19, 1934, the day before my mother’s marriage. Mom is seated next to my grandfather. 

I have looked at this picture multiple times in almost every year of my life. It has served as cement for the large extended family that grew out of this assembled crew.

Well dressed for the 1930s, and I am sure they were carefully groomed for the photo. Such photos in 1934 had to be a substantial investment. 

From the photo, at a casual glance, one could surmise this was a well-to-do family of a prosperous merchant or maybe even a doctor or a lawyer. The truth is they are the family of a farmer. A dairy farmer on Catching Creek out of Myrtle Point, Oregon.

The standing girls eventually ended up in California. Still, their attachment to the family and that piece of ground they had called home for so many years remained intact.

The youngest boy, Ernie, standing at my mother’s shoulder, would go on to serve as a bomber pilot in WWII. He spoke of paying for a plane ride from a barnstormer after he had enlisted in the Army Air Force, just to see if he would actually like to fly. After the war, he became the only one of the bunch to finish college. Teaching, coaching, and finally becoming a school administrator served as his career, but he also remained a farmer.

All the others remained close to the land. Close to Myrtle Point and Catching Creek.

I have no idea of the count of individuals in the four generations that have followed this group, but there are many. There were twenty-nine cousins in my generation. 

In all large families, the group has all degrees of success. As a whole, everyone in this family has done well to carry on the traditions of our grandparents. I cannot think of anyone who would be considered the family’s black sheep. 

Today, for some reason, when I glanced at the picture, my grandfather’s hands jumped out at me. 

He is fifty-four in this picture, and his hands are the hands of a man who knows a life of physical labor. Compared to the skin of my grandmother and his two daughters seated in the front, his hands are dark. Those hands have toiled in the sun. And though you can’t see the calluses on the palms of his hands, you know they are there by course skin and bulging vessels on the back of his hands.

Milking dairy cows in 1934 was not easy. Especially when you had to grow virtually all of the feed for the herd on the farm. By then, the older boys were building farms and families, so much of the work fell squarely on this guy’s shoulders.

The summer I was fifteen, I worked for this man. He was eighty-one that year. I was a stout young man in those years and just starting to build my adult frame. I thought I was pretty tough; by today’s standards, I probably was. The old man worked my butt off on a daily basis. And he was beside me every step of the way. During the whole summer, I saw him sit down once while we were working. 

“The hardest job I ever had was when I tried to retire when I was sixty-seven,” he told me that afternoon while he rested in the shade of a giant ash tree on the bank of Catching Creek.

My biggest surprise today was when I looked at those of my grandmother. She was a few days from turning 48 when this photo was taken. Her hands are mostly hidden from view in the picture, and I had to look closely. I am absolutely sure that I had never noticed her hands before.

In my memory, which I always try to think is pretty good, I never witnessed my grandmother in the barn. They had a garage located halfway to the barn, maybe a hundred yards from the house. Grandpa would always bring the car down to the house for Grandma to get into it. I am not sure I ever saw her walking to the garage.

Farm families in those years often had a division of labor, with the women working in the house and the men working in the fields and the barn. But look at her hands, and tell me that she had an easy life.

Besides the daily chores of cooking and cleaning, there were chores that we had completely forgotten about today.

Maintaining a garden for a large family is work enough, and canning the proceeds of the garden can consume days. Wash day was not just throwing clothes in the machine and pushing a few buttons.

Before the luxury of a wringer washer, it was a wash tub and scrubboard. And hanging the clothes on the line in the summer was a luxury, and getting them dry in the winter was a struggle.

The wash tub also gave kids their weekly bath, followed by yourself, hopefully, with some degree of privacy.

My mother’s hands are not the hands one would expect of a twenty-one-year-old young lady today. 

Notice the bulging vessel on her left wrist and enlarged middle knuckles on her left hand. Her fingernails were probably treated better than usual as she prepared for her coming wedding. Still, they are not long and not painted. I remember seeing a bottle or two of nail polish in the house when I was growing up, but those probably belonged to my sister. I have no memory of my mother with painted nails.

And finally, look at Lila’s hands. She is the youngest of the girls and is just fourteen in this picture. 

Her hands are smoother than my mother’s but show some telltale signs of wear and tear, even at her young age. And the nails are trimmed short and functional.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. In this picture, the hands, not the coat and tie or the flowered dress, tell the story.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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