Shaking the hands of time

Published 8:24 pm Friday, March 6, 2009

I learned from a young age the value of a handshake.

The first person that pops into my mind was a man I met when I was about 14 years old. He had hair that looked considerably more aged than his face, and grinned like a man who knew the answer to every question anyone could possibly ask.

I strode up to him like I was big stuff (which is true because I was always bigger than my peers) and reached out looking for an amiable, if not fairly weak return grip from his right hand. Wrong.

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He crushed my fingers and turned them over one another as his smile got bigger. It was the first time I considered tearing up in public.

It wasn’t until years later that I figured out he was more than a sadist. He was teaching me a lesson.

I was always a shy kid, not one for talking very much or very loudly. I didn’t do a very good job of fooling people about my nature with a soft, clammy handshake.

So I devised a way to hide talcum powder and a stress ball in my pocket. I’m just kidding. I didn’t really do that, but it amuses me that you believed it for a second. Admit it, you were beginning to form a visual in your head.

Getting back to the point, it awes me at the hands I’ve shaken just this week. Actually, let me correct that. It awes me the personalities attached to the hands I’ve shaken this week.

I sat on a bench with NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, his raspy voice so low it rattled the bench beneath us.

He taught me more in a five-minute interview than I learned in half a high school semester of Alabama history. Either he’s more brilliant than people give him credit for, or we need to address some serious issues in education.

I shook the hand of Richie Jean Jackson, who lamented that she could not attend more mass meetings when the civil rights movement was laying tracks through the heart of Selma. Because she was “washing sheets and cooking” for her family, for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and for others who sought refuge at her home, it took her away from more involved duties.

Then it dawned on me the endless amounts of people whose roles during that time were not as public but just as important. I think that not every good soldier gets to fire a gun, but they are all willing to take the bullet.

I shook the hand of a woman who turned 100 years old, right before she stood to proudly display a dress she made herself. I’m sure Mary Goldsby had more answers than I had questions, but she never let on that way.

She looked me directly in the eye and told me exactly how she made it to the century mark. No alcohol? Wow, I’ll be knocking off early, ma’am.

Then she did something that took me totally by surprise. She thanked me and called me by my name as I walked out the door.

I’m 27 years old, and I have to ask most people to tell me who they are at least once more after meeting them for the first time.

I wasn’t nearly as shocked by her retention as I was by my own expectations of people, myself included.

Another warm handshake. Another lesson.