Hard to Shake

When Jim Montgomery extended his hand to me, I shook it.

It wasn’t automatic. For an instant I thought about the coronavirus edict that we aren’t supposed to shake hands anymore.

But I did take his hand, and the experience was warmly satisfying. It made me realize how much I miss handshaking these days.

Jim is in good health for his age. He looks much younger than 93. But his age alone puts him at greater risk for the virus. Even more at risk is his wife, Loretta, who is a year younger and in ill health. You can make the argument that I put both of them in danger by not refusing his handshake.

I shook another man’s hand later the same day. It was a neighbor who had flagged me down as I was traveling Route 8 on the tractor to Tomlinson Run State Park, on my way to do a good deed. (Cultivating for a native pollinator garden, which is another story.)

The neighbor asked me to stay on the highway berm and not travel through state property across from his house that he voluntarily keeps mowed. Part of the mowed area is wet, and my tractor tracks made it bumpy for his lawnmower. I told him I got off the highway wherever I could for safety.

His good deed and my good deed resulted in a minor conflict, but I understood his point of view and yielded to it.

He thanked me and extended his hand, apologizing for the handshake even as he offered it. I took his hand, even removing my work glove first. It’s what men do. Men shake hands. From the time we are little boys, we are taught that men should shake hands as we meet and greet each other, to show respect and goodwill.

It’s deeply ingrained custom in Western culture, one that is very, very hard to give up. Substitute gestures such as tapping elbows or feet feel pathetic and wholly inadequate.

A PUZZLE WAS THE REASON that Honey and I visited Jim and Loretta at their home, situated high on a West End hillside in East Liverpool. A jigsaw puzzle, to be specific.

It all started with a letter which Jim sent to me last week in care of The Review.

“You know more people than me,” he wrote, “so I am asking if you know of anyone who does jigsaw puzzles.”

He explained in his letter that he was born in Wellsville in 1926. The family’s home was situated between the Ohio River and the railroad tracks.

“Wellsville was a great railroad town. My dad, uncles and granddad worked on the railroad. I guess I fell in love with the old Iron Horse (steam engine),” he wrote.

Over the years a son, Mark, has given his dad several picture puzzles of railroad engines and trains. Jim enjoyed putting them together; he framed the finished puzzles and hung them on the walls of their house.

“Due to medical problems in our home, I am unable to do it anymore. Mark got me a 1,000-piece train scene puzzle for Christmas. I would like to have someone put it together. I will pay them,” his letter said.

Jim included their phone number in his letter. I called and told him he had asked the right person. My wife Honey happens to be a whiz at jigsaw puzzles.

HONEY HAD READ Jim’s letter, and it touched her heart. She readily agreed to take on the task – not for pay, of course. On her way to their house to get the puzzle, Honey called to see if they needed anything from the store. In the course of that conversation, Jim mentioned that the idea of writing to me came to him after he had prayed on it. That really clinched it for Honey. Now she was on a mission from God.

The puzzle was a painting of a Western scene. A steam engine named the “Rio Grande” was crossing a steel trestle in winter. Snow and stands of green pine trees covered a mountain in the background. The sky was overcast in hues of gray.

It was a challenging puzzle, and over the next two days Honey spent quite a few hours putting it together on our kitchen table. When she finished there was one piece missing, along the edge. She and I debated over what, if anything, to do about it. We also weren’t sure how to glue a jigsaw puzzle together for framing. Neither of us had ever done that, but we learned that part was really easy.

A friend from church who worked at Joann’s Fabrics told her to brush puzzle glue (yes, they make such stuff) or decoupage (brand name Mod Podge) on either the front or back of the finished puzzle. We used Mod Podge on the back and it worked like a charm. The one coat dried quickly, creating a bond strong and flexible enough for the puzzle to be picked up as one piece without coming apart.

Honey cleverly solved the missing piece problem, cutting a snippet of cardboard from a matching part of the picture on the puzzle box and pasting it behind the hole. You don’t see it unless you know to look for it.

We put the puzzle in a poster frame and headed out to deliver it. We had our cloth masks on our faces when Jim met us at the door. Loretta waved hello from the next room. Jim admired the picture, then laid it on the dining room table and kept looking at it as we chatted. He thanked Honey over and over for her labor of love.

As we left, Jim extended his hand to me. It was my pleasure to shake it. How could I not?


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