A Handshake

“Try that again,” I said to the young woman I was interviewing after our introductory handshake left me completely unimpressed. I’m not sure who the heck I thought I was back then but I added, “and shake my hand with confidence.” Had the roles been reversed I doubt I could print what I might have been thinking but re-shake my hand she did as I explained why that first impression mattered…and dare I say, particularly for women.

“Handshakes are telling.” I said. “Have you ever had someone crush your bones with a grip of implied dominance? Those ones leave my poor old joints throbbing for an hour so they can pretty much forget whatever it was they were trying to say or sell?”

She laughed, less uncomfortable.

“A firm, full grip denotes confidence. Your second one was perfect!”

She nodded and smiled and I knew I was lucky because in hindsight the poor thing was probably already nervous enough without me humiliating right off the bat. But she persisted and I had the great privilege of watching her career grow over the years.

Handshakes matter. How one reaches out to another has meaning. Just watch the hilarious political GIFs that demonstrate the current oval office’s dominance dance with world leaders. But most folks are more gentle with their introductions or at least less in need of demonstrative self-assurance but still, handshakes can be telling.

Colleen and I moved to the farm in late spring of 2013. The fenced yard surrounding the quaint green and white century farmhouse complete with gabled eves and wraparound porch was dotted with Oz-like Black Locust trees that were beautiful and interesting year round. Like an old English garden, perennial beds were everywhere and because we bought the place in winter, to say that we were excited about what flowers might come up was an understatement. Because of the fence it was perfect for our dogs, one of which was a skilled escape artist but totally oblivious to traffic and despite his senior years could evade capture with ease. To avoid catastrophe and frankly, the grating irritation of chasing him, the fence was a godsend.

The day we moved in, Colleen went out to check the entire perimeter of the near-acre enclosure to ensure no holes could tempt the bolting critter. We hadn’t met them yet but she found a gap at the corner where our property line met our neighbour’s, right at the end of their driveway. She created a simple temporary solution by threading a rope between the posts in a downward spiral to close it off. While doing this she happened to touch the boundary stake, which was hammered in the ground where the opening was between the two fence posts.

Without warning, the neighbour charged out of his house and strode right up to Colleen, mad as a hornet.
“Don’t you be touching that post or anything to do with my property.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “I was just tying this rope here to close the gap so our dogs can’t get out. I assure you it is only temporary.”

He blustered out some mutterings and stepped back a foot or two but continued to glare at her.

Colleen’s no milquetoast but she dislikes confrontation and she’s kind. Unless egregiously provoked she’ll back away.

I saw them from the kitchen window and, unaware of the tension, went out to join them, introduce myself, excited to meet our new neighbour.

“Hello,” I said, as I reached over the three foot high fence, my hand extended, proof, as history tells us, that I carried no weapon. “My name is Judy.”

He snorted, mumbled something about the fence and walked away.

Colleen told me what had happened and my rage began.

I am not like Colleen. Perhaps the bigger (uglier) truth is that, as it turns out, I can morph right back into my nasty childhood persona…a territorial, protective Taurean with a don’t-f-with-my-family-or-friends credo. Not my finest trait but there it was, unleashed from the bowels of my dark cellar where I kept it on lock-down.

Tell me this isn’t happening, I thought as I headed back to the house furious and in the grip of bad memories. It should have been a joyful new beginning. Colleen and I had been through more than imaginable before moving to the farm. It was supposed to be a place of peace; a respite from her relentless grief having just lost a child. Seriously, if that old persona of mine had a right to surface, it was then. I was lucky my extended hand did not hold a weapon.

I immediately remembered when I lived in Nova Scotia a decade earlier. My three neighbours had to drive through a right-of-way on property I owned. One family was lovely; the other two, I thought, lived up to their patriarchal reputations by completely ignoring any efforts I made to be friendly. Maybe it was because I was a come-from-away or perhaps because I was a woman. I tucked away fears about other possible frightening judgements. Neither of them so much as slowed down, let alone wave anytime they drove by me, although their kind wives always did. I would see only the sides of an unsmiling face as they sped past, raising trails of dust above the gravel road—nary a glance, never a turn of the head, ignoring me, even if I stood on the edge of my property waving.

It was not exactly that open-armed Maritimes welcome tourists raved about, but I tried to pretend it did not bother me.

Four years in, with friends in tow after an afternoon golf game, one of them came into my restaurant (a brief career I tried during my hiatus from media) for the first time to have drinks. He exposed his latent bigotry. After the fellow quickly reached his limit, our server—as he had been trained—quietly let him know that he was cut off.

“You can’t f’ing cut me off,” he shouted, loud enough that everyone in the restaurant could hear. “I don’t care what those f’ng dykes down the road think, they can just go and…”

The rest is unimportant. Suffice it to say, when the server came in the next morning, on his day off, and told me what happened, I hit the roof. Without thinking twice, I picked up the phone and called him at work, insisting he come to the phone. The young woman who answered said he was busy.

I told her who I was and said, “You tell him I’m not hanging up until he speaks to me. He’ll know why.”
And to the phone he came.

“You were in my restaurant last night talking in front of our customers in a way that is incomprehensible.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said. His voice was sullen and, I thought, hesitant.

I was cold and angry, but my rage was in check. “Of course you do. Let’s not even go down that path.”

“I’m at work,” he said. “I’d like to call you back later. May I?”

“Would that you had extended us any workplace courtesy. Please do. I’ll be at home,” I said and hung up. I doubted he would call.

My daughter, on holiday from classes at Dalhousie in Halifax, was visiting at the time. I told her what had happened. If he did call back, I wanted her to listen. I wanted a witness to his words, in case the conversation went south. I was ready to take him on.

Surprisingly the phone rang.

“Hello again. Thank you for letting me call back,” he said in a subdued voice, without contempt.

“I appreciate it,” I said, pausing briefly to quiet my nerves. I had a message to deliver and wanted to be on my game. “Do you have any idea what you did? How it affected our staff—and to do that in front of our customers…?” I said. “You know, I don’t get it … or, really, maybe I do. I’ve lived here almost four years now, and you pass by every day. How many times have you stopped to say hello? Even introduced yourself?” I paused again, the silence loud. “Never,” I said.

I could feel tears but refused to allow them passage.

“It’s like I don’t exist. Is it really that hard for you? And I would never, ever have gone into your place of business and done what you did.”

I had to stop myself when I looked up at my daughter. Tears streamed down her face, and her expression quickly made me realize what I had done. I had exposed her, for the first time, to the hard part of my life I had never wanted her to see, and besides her tears, her expression was so sad. I wanted her be a witness, not get hurt.

“I don’t have anything more to say to you. My daughter’s heard every word of this, and I realize now that her heart is breaking. So is mine.”

There was a pause.

“I would like to apologize to you, if you’ll let me. I am very, very sorry. That is not who I am, and it is not who I want to be.”

This from a sixty-something lord of the land.

“We live in such a great country,” I said, “which has now made what you did illegal. It was hateful but your apology matters, and I thank you for it.”

His apology did matter. It reminded me that hope was real and change possible.

Still, after that, he did not wave.

Shaking off that heartbreaking memory, I could not just stand by and let this be how life in our new home would begin. So the old Judy got stuffed back down my craw and I turned to Colleen who had come back into the house with me and said, “I’m going to try something.” I went to the cupboard and took out some preserves we’d just put away and found a basket that a floral delivery had come in and put a package together. Out the door I went, along the road and right up his driveway. The only weapon I had was hope.

He was using his chainsaw in the open double doorway of his shed and looked up to see me approach. That he was armed with a horror movie weapon did not escape me but he put it down, took off his gloves and came toward me. Before I could say a word, as he got near he extended his hand and said, “I did not give you a very warm welcome and I apologize for that. My name is Bill.”

Could have pushed me over with a feather.

We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and from that moment on they were lovely, kind neighbours…the kind that, without asking, clears your driveway after every snowfall, before you wake, and wants nothing.

“Let him do it,” said his wife one day. “It gives him something to do and gets him out of the house. He loves that old tractor so it’s fun for him. And by the way,” she added, sounding as if ready to scold me, “I caught him red-handed with sweets you gave him. You have to stop that; he’s diabetic, you know, the sneaky bugger.”

They were good neighbours.

We’re in a new home now.

Apparently the previous owners were not very pleasant so we looked like angels by comparison when we nervously warned our then-new neighbours that our moving truck was coming the next morning and apologized in advance for any inconvenience it might cause. I was overwhelmed when this lovely retired couple immediately welcomed us and said, “We’re so glad you’re here,” and then each extended their hand and shook both of ours, wrapping their other hand in a warm embrace around our clasped grip as they smiled.

It felt warm and kind and caring and we knew right then and there that life here would be good. It could have gone the other way. Human nature is unpredictable and I have, as have too many others, seen the good, the bad and the ugly.

Colleen and I agree that this home is our last. Shoot me now if I ever have to see another moving box. No, when I leave this place it will be in a pine box with sincere hope that my final handshake will be uplifting.

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