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500-Word Essay Contest Second-Place: “Half a Bear Hug”

Photo of rural road for Beverly Rose essay.

“Half a Bear Hug” By Beverly Rose

My grandfather became my legal guardian after tragedy made me mostly an orphan: a mother dead from childbirth and a disinterested dad.

Leo, named after his mother’s favorite fruit peddler, was gruff, opinionated, fiercely protective, and had only one arm.

In 1932, he was rounding a corner on a two-lane country road, his left arm dangling out the window, when an oncoming car crossed the center line sheering it off. Leo crashed into a tree and was taken to the hospital by a carload of strangers. The story goes that the men were rum runners, so they couldn’t stick around to file a police report.

His arm was never found among the Michigan maple leaves. His wedding band lost forever. He was in his 30s with three kids.

“My stub” he always called it…that left arm that ended where his bicep bulge began.

He played piano using complicated arpeggios to mask the lack of a bass line. He won trophies for skeet shooting; the rifle firmly against his shoulder and his strong right hand balancing the muzzle and working the trigger. He played poker, sailed, drank martinis, swam, smoked Camel unfiltered cigarettes, fly fished, mowed the lawn, chopped wood, made homemade pizzas, and turned slabs of pork into sausages.

There were only two things he couldn’t do: tie his shoes and wash his hand. Those were my jobs.

If his shoe ever came untied out in the world, he would have to ask someone for help. He probably would have walked barefoot rather than bother a stranger or his secretary at the insurance company. We practiced tying tight double knots, over and over, and over again. I perfected the technique. We teamed up every morning.

The hand washing was easier: always 20 Mule Team Borax, the graininess making his hand red but getting it clean, even after gutting the trout and blue gills I would catch; me holding the fish steady while he slit them open and removed the slippery gray and bloody parts.

He died of lung cancer the week I started my junior year of high school. The last time I visited the hospital, he took my left hand and raised it to his mouth. That kiss was a thank you and a goodbye.

Even after fifty years, I think of him every time I tie my shoes, always in double knots.