Seedlings: Stories of Relationships


My dad was a self-appointed ambassador of good will. This excerpt from Seedlings is for him.

The Seven-Second Connection

The Seed: The Handshake was something my dad taught my sisters and me, not by saying “Watch and learn” but just by being himself. This got me thinking of those thousands of things parents and other adults teach us in similar ways.

As an oversensitive eight-year-old, I could be embarrassed by my father in about seven seconds. It wasn’t that he was obnoxious or unattractive. Even as a child, I saw that my father turned heads with his straight posture, his twinkling gray eyes, and a certain openness that made him so appealing.

It was precisely that easy friendliness that made me cringe. As shy young girls, my twin sister and I had learned to create our own world and often didn’t need anyone else. Was it because Dad wasn’t a twin that he needed to greet every passing soul? Everyone in church already knew him. Did he have to be on this campaign to get to know everyone in the suburbs of New York?

“Hi, I’m Al Erickson,” he’d say to anyone, with a hand out for a warm handshake. “This is my wife, Gladys, and my girls, Ingrid and the twins, Eileen and Ethel,” and he’d go down the line introducing us. All with a big smile on his face.

“Put out your hand. Four fingers together. Thumb up a little. Firm. Strong,” he would instruct us for The Handshake. Every Saturday during the summer, we walked to the post office in a small town out on the north shore of Long Island that was our haven in the summer. As soon as the person next to us had clicked their box closed, Dad was ready. He’d stick out his hand for the greeting. We all learned to follow suit. Smile and shake.

It never occurred to me to explore the why of my preadolescent discomfort. I just knew he was like that everywhere—at the corner store, at the library, even on the street.

“Jeez, Dad, we don’t even know them.”

“Now you do. You may be the only person who says hello to them all day.”

As I got older my perspective on the world shifted. I noticed the reactions to his handshake. Strangers were sometimes slow to shake hands, but they did. The hello was often just an opener. When Dad shifted his weight and brought both hands up to make a point, I knew we were set to “jaw a while.”

I learned how to make friends all with a quick handshake and a smile. The boundaries of my father’s world were marked by the towns in which he lived. But I believe he was one of the best goodwill ambassadors around. And he had fun doing it.

As I got older, the routine came naturally for me. It gave me a way to mask my own shyness. As a teacher in New Jersey, I made a commitment to personally greet each child within the first ten minutes of class. In professional groups greeting nervous new members or guests, I still hear echoes of “You may be the only person who says hello.”



…That seven second connection has successfully propelled me to a meeting, a presentation, a party, Toastmasters, a yoga class. When I get to the door, a handshake and smile pull me across the threshold. Hey, I know how to do this. Thanks, Dad. I’m home.

The Garden’s Harvest: Rather than let the “what ifs” stop me from going somewhere new, I take The Handshake along with me wherever I go. Rather than feel old when I have the good fortune to meet young folks from Generation X or Y, I relish the comparisons and the look of amazement when we find common ground. It’s always true—we are more alike than different.