“Before you leave tonight I want everyone here to shake my hand.”
I turned in the direction of that mild baritone to behold Knoxville attorney Robert Godwin's tanned face, set off by silvering hair and a trim, gentleman's beard.
“Why?” asked a woman as 20 or so people began settling into chairs in the old church hall in Fort Sanders where I teach my adult writing course.
“You'll understand when you read what I'm passing out tonight,” Bob said through a broad and knowing smile.
I've a weakness for insider information but I didn't broach the mystery of Bob's request as I brought the class to order. We had six pieces to critique by fellow classmates—stories that ranged from brutally frank personal memoirs to pointed political satire--and it would be tough to slog through so much complex prose in one night--a process I likened to Sherman's march to the sea.
In our case the sea—the payoff--was a Cumberland Avenue eatery and watering hole we liked to retire to after class to kick around notions at a more relaxed pace, and I was looking forward to it. So following some raucous debate and banter about life's turns and the turns-of-phrase writers employ to chronicle these trying times, I adjourned class. That's when Bob stood to pass around a short essay titled simply, “The Handshake.” As he did so, he extended his right hand and squeezed each of our hands in turn. When he came to me, his bearing was warm and stately, somehow, as if Bob were striving to bequeath some feeling or effect, as his eyes bored into mine.
I wondered about all those handshakes as I locked the church doors and left, but I didn't pause to read the essay. I would be late getting to the restaurant as it was.
The mystery only deepened as I settled into my seat a few minutes later to join about a dozen or so others around wooden tables. I heard a young woman ask brightly, “Have you washed your hands yet?” Those of us who'd yet to read Bob's piece shushed her down, and nobody else brought it up.
I forgot all about it until the next morning, when I came across Bob's story while cleaning out my briefcase. As I read it I felt again the warm pressure of his hand.
I can't vouch for everything in Bob's essay. Some of it is hearsay, as Bob would be the first to admit, but he believes it to be true and I pass it on with awe and a sense of entitlement. It's my story too, now, and I'd like to think it all happened just like he said.
One morning, years ago, Bob wrote, he had just finished teaching a Sunday school class when a balding man in his 70s approached the podium.
“Shake my hand,” his older friend implored. Bob did so with a question mark on his face. “I don't share this with everyone,” the man said, “but when I was a little boy in Virginia, we had an elderly black maid. She helped raise me, if the truth were known. When I was about 12, she called me to her one day and said, Boy, you're almost a man now. Shake my hand.”
When he did so she said “Look carefully at your hand and remember this day.” Then she told the boy about the time near the end of the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln came to the town where she spent much of her childhood. The whole town of war-ravaged people turned out to gaze upon Lincoln's weary face, to hear his high, lonesome voice. The old woman told Bob's friend so long ago, “After his speech, he walked amongst us, and he shook my hand. It caused a stir,” as whites didn't often shake the hands of blacks in public, “but he did it.”
“Boy,” she continued, looking into his wide eyes, “you are just two handshakes away from Abraham Lincoln.”
When the man finished the story, Bob looked speechlessly at that lined face and back at his hand, “trying to take in the enormity of this revelation. I didn't wash my hand that day,” he wrote. “I've been to Ford's Theater. I've gazed into Lincoln's marble eyes at the Memorial. I've toured the White House. I've read the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. I have stood where brothers by the thousands tried to kill each other over what this country should stand for. I was always in awe of these momentous events of our history. Since that day, however, I get goose bumps at such moments, because I am only three handshakes away from Abraham Lincoln. And now, dear friends, you are just four handshakes away!”
I don't need to tell you the moral of THIS story. If we should ever meet, do yourself a favor.
Shake my hand.