hands modeling clay

Sometimes the words of people long gone echo in our heads not to scare or torment us but to remind us of something truly important. In my case, after losing them in the deepest recesses of my memory for over a decade, my grandfather’s word of wisdom would come to me in a flash of inspiration when I needed it. It would since reverberate in my mind every so often.

My grandfather was a brilliant man. For a profession he chose one that shaped futures. He was a university professor and dean, teaching and training eventual educators for over 40 years. His colleagues and students spoke very highly of him.

As a young boy I was taught to fear him. I only had to get a taste of his leather belt on my buttocks once to know he meant serious business. (The occasional welt served as a good memory pill for certain things like needing to be called only once when dinner is ready). With this fear, came respect, which over time grew into admiration once I got to observe how he got things done.

He excelled at everything I saw him do. A good carpenter, he built sturdy stools and spacious cabinets with his traditional hammer and saw, and consistently found time to lend me a hand with my school carpentry projects. As his own mechanic, he changed his car’s oil by his lonesome, coated the chassis with asphalt paint, and took pride at having a visibly clean engine. He even kept a journal exclusively for his trusty Volkswagen.

Apparently, he was also good at things I didn’t get a chance to witness him do firsthand. But proof of his brilliance weren’t difficult to find. Early in his days as a professor, he worked part-time as a silversmith to augment his income, and judging from the remnants of his work — earrings, necklaces and bracelets, they wouldn’t be that difficult to sell. (After his death, my grandmother proved this point too easily). His class cards from his postgraduate studies demonstrated he was a good student, recording high marks from a top university in the country. Plastered on our wall was a diploma for a radio electronics course that for years had me thinking he actually went to California; turns out he completed the study via correspondence.

One Saturday night, when I was about 9 or 10, while my brother and I were watching MacGyver on TV, I noticed my grandfather scribbling on his pad during commercial breaks. After the show was over, he revealed to us what he had quickly worked on, and to our eyes it was an accurate, even beautiful, sketch of our faces. I could not draw a matchstick if my life depended on it, so I was quick to admire his output. But the expression on his face didn’t hide his dissatisfaction with his own work. It took years for me to figure out the significance of that dissatisfied look.

I would hear my grandfather express disapproval whenever he saw work that he wasn’t happy with, one that he discerned was done haphazardly and wasn’t given the effort it deserved. This could be a student’s rushed paper, a riprapping job by hired hands that wasn’t exactly stellar, or even a bad road-paving project by the local government. At each of those instances, he would say “footwork”, along with the shake of the head.

He never really bothered to explain to me what he meant. He probably just assumed I would get it. And boy did I get it, especially after being on the receiving end of his criticism a number of times. Hearing him say that single word (“footwork”) was enough for me to feel guilty about either being too lazy or not giving the appropriate time it took to get a task done properly. Somehow I came to understand from his repeated use of an expression most unique that handwork was meant to be beautiful and the only way to be excused for churning out ugly work was if you say you used your feet instead. It was his way of criticizing substandard output and saying that anything worth doing was worth doing well.

What I appreciated about the way he voiced out that word either as a plain observation or private criticism was that it wasn’t borne out of a superiority complex or condescending nature. It never struck me to mean “you’re dumb” or “you’re no good”. It always sounded to me like, “you can do better than that” or even “is that the best you can do?”.

Not only did I occasionally fail to rise to the challenge, but I also turned out to be a poor keeper of personal histories. Somehow I had almost forgotten my grandfather even uttered that word. That is, until one day while I was talking in front of a group of students and the topic veered towards mediocrity. It came to me unexpectedly, ferociously. Footwork! I had to share it. According to a friend I was with, it was the best thing I had said during the two-hour talk. From then on, that single word would echo in my head every so often.

Why did he excel so much at things he put his mind on? Surely, he wasn’t good at everything? For one thing, he didn’t play the guitar like my mother did. I never got beaten by him in chess because we never played a single game. I didn’t even get the chance to determine if he was secretly competitive, like my mother and I am. And he can’t be instantly good at all those things I saw him do, right? For sure, he had talent. But no one could be a competent mechanic overnight. No hobbyist could finish in a day that correspondence course he completed. One can’t play the harmonica proficiently in a matter of minutes.

At any rate, what he chose to do, he did so very well. And maybe that was part of his secret: he didn’t set out to do a lot but opted to focus on a number of things and made sure he was good at them. That last part might as well be part of his secret too. He was committed and had the discipline to excel.

Looking back, it seems like his magic formula had always been in plain sight for me to see if only I were willing to pay attention enough. For instance, my mother already mentioned to me that my grandfather used to bring a tape recorder with him when he attended lectures in his masteral studies. Why it never occurred to me to utilize a similar method of immortalizing my college lectures, I don’t know. Then, he had a number of books about car mechanics and issues of Popular Electronics, and devoted hours reading them. He always seemed to be gaining time: he was constantly reading, typing, writing, checking papers, solving crossword puzzles or doing something engaging or productive. Moreover, he was never afraid to get his hands dirty to apply what he had learned, spending many occasions doing so. He would tear his engine apart midmorning and always managed to put it back together before dinner. He would smell of kerosene during Sunday lunches because he used the solvent to clean his greasy hands, the scent stubbornly clinging despite repeated washings. (Up to now, that odor would always turn back the clock for me to when he was still alive.) Also, he kept a routine and almost never deviated from it. Part of it was going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking up between 4-4:30 a.m. He’d read himself to sleep, and before breakfast he’d already manage to clean his car and shine our shoes, among other things.

By no means was he perfect. He used to smoke he said to me once, but he kicked the habit in an instant when he determined it was the appropriate time. “Sheer willpower” was his answer when I asked him how he did it. His marriage with my grandmother was also in trouble for some time but he managed to fix it after deciding it was “the right thing to do.” He was flawed as any of us could be, but how he turned things around, stood by his principles and applied the high standards he kept for himself made him all the more admirable in my eyes.

I was about 8 when I was bitten by a neighbor’s dog. I kept crying even when the initial shock and pain were long gone. “Don’t be such a baby, you’re not gonna die,” my grandfather said to me. I stopped almost immediately because he allayed my secret fear that he somehow discovered. I was 30 when I learned that doctors found a tumor in his colon. I started crying even before knowing all the details. “You’ll get well,” I texted him one day, “I’m still going to take you on a trip to Singapore.” He replied, “It’s up to the Lord now.” Somehow, his response gave me peace of mind.

He suffered quietly, in his own dignified way, in the months following the tumor’s discovery. He lived 9 months and 77 years.


Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. – Ecclesiastes 9:10