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. This particular one is for my Dad, fathers everywhere, and those people who have been like loving Dads to us. Happy Father’s Day.
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.
Dad’s Way of Greeting – The Handshake
“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. Most Saturdays during the summer, we walked to the post office in a small town out on the north shore of Long Island, New York that was our summertime haven. 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. People who might be termed “frosty” shook hands and often melted enough for a follow-up hug. 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.”
By the time I began my second career as a counselor and life skills presenter, The Handshake was my own. Sure, I’d get nervous before I spoke to a group. I don’t know anyone … What if … But after about two minutes I’d realize a truism I’ve used for almost twenty years—we are more alike than we are different.
In 2007 I was ecstatic to have my first book published. Thinking of Miller Place: A Memoir of Summer Comfort has lots of twin stories and, yep, the story of Dad and The Handshake is definitely in it. I spent a full year doing book signings and talking about the power of words—both written and spoken. And I had fun doing it.
In 2009 my husband and I moved from New Jersey to Tucson. On our neighborhood walk, a “good morning” was often the seven-second connection with a new friend. Going to first meetings or new group or a party, the “what if’s” can start chanting in my head. But when I get to the door, a handshake and smile help me step across the threshold. Hey, I know how to do this. Thanks, Dad.
Did you like this story?
Let me know. “The Seven-Second Connection” is a revised excerpt from Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. The full story is part of Thinking of Miller Place: A Memoir of Summer Comfort. If you liked this post, Seedlings and Thinking of Miller Place are both available on Amazon and from the author. Contact Ethel.
Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic.