Remembering my second father – Charlie Donnelly

June 5, 2014

When I was young, I believed nobody had hands as strong and as thick as my father’s. I remember riding in the car with him to go check on gas stations in an old Caprice Classic station wagon. I’d sit in the front as he drove with one hand and squeezed one of the grip strengthening things with the other.

I could hardly squeeze that grip thing together using both hands, yet he did it with one hand. As I grew up, I was eventually able to squeeze the grip thing. I also learned that hand size and thickness sometimes depended on something other than body chemistry or how much you squeezed an exercise device. Sometimes real strength comes from your heart.

When I got married the first time, I ran into a rough financial patch. To make ends meet, I spent some time working as an assistant for my then father-in-law Charlie Donnelly. Charlie was a finish carpenter who specialized in brass weatherstripping for high-end houses. He was my second dad. The work Charlie had done for decades made his hands strong and thick like my father’s.

There was wiry red and gray hair on the back of Charlie’s hands. Nailing brass into door frames and doors for hours each day meant his hands took a beating. I didn’t fully appreciate the skill and strength in those hands until I spent a few weeks with him on the job.

At first I ran to get coffee and carried stuff to and from his van. I’d set up ladders and put primer on doors. Most of the work an apprentice might do – though I was a writer with soft hands more suited for banging on a keyboard instead of wielding a plane or a hammer.

Over time I gained more responsibility, learning how to properly align the expensive brass strips underneath doors to fend off New England’s harshest elements. Tiny brass nails were used to attach the weatherstripping. It amazed me that Charlie’s thick, callused hands seldom dropped a delicate nail.

Those same thick hands carried dozens of gift baskets to families in need during the holidays. They clasped together nightly to pray over dinner with his family, and then each weekend at church. These strong hands were driven by Charlie Donnelly’s heart.

He lent me a hand by putting me to work, but I knew it was Charlie’s heart that made room for me as a part-time apprentice. It’s odd, but in some some ways, I thought Charlie’s heart was as strong and powerful as those rough-hewn hands. For more than 70 years, it was. And as we all do when thinking of parents, I thought he’d last forever.

I was wrong. Earlier today, June 5, 2014, Charlie Donnelly’s heart stopped. The heart that was so open to so many people and causes for so many years. The heart that directed his strong hands to lift the spirits of so many people. The heart that loved his family and friends without reservation. It just stopped working.

I’ll miss Charlie Donnelly. God speed my second father. Thanks for your love, your hands and your heart.