Niagara Gazette

April 11, 2014

HAMILTON: The mirrors of my grandfather's fingernails

By Ken Hamilton
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — What we do or don’t do will have a greater impact upon our grandchildren’s futures than what you might think. 

To positively change their futures, we must first know and understand how it is that we arrived at our own present, and then change it as necessary by using the positive, time-tested values of our own grandparents’ pasts. 

I could not have been more than about 5 years old when my dad drove the family to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to visit my mother’s father. I remember sitting on grandfather’s lap, holding and examining his dark hands and asking him the kind of questions about them that any curious and secure tyke would ask. There were small, but deep vertical grooves that ran lengthwise through his then-manicured nails. They reminded me of the grooves on the vinyl music recordings of that day. I then compared my then-tiny and smooth fingernails to his.

It’s funny how small things can remind us of those who have gone before us. Just recently, I noticed those same grooves upon my own nails. As I stared at them, they seemingly transformed themselves into tiny and magical mirrors that foggily reflected back into the past; and I could see a 5-year-old little boy once again sitting upon his grandfather’s knee and looking at his hands.

Shakespeare wrote that the past is prologue. But sometimes it is a tad bit more than that. Human nature dictates that, as we go through life’s changes, we become those whom have gone before us.

Former Buffalo Mayor Grover Cleveland was president when my grandfather had left home and went off to work in the mines. According to my mother’s sister, grandfather was but three or so years older than I was when I would later sit upon his lap. He had carried with him a lunch pail in his hand, a bag of books over his shoulder and the dream of a better life in his head. His dreams did manifest themselves; as, near the age of 90, he died a self-taught, retired, coal mining superintendent. 

In casual conversation with my aunt, I once told her that I had been elected as my union’s secretary-treasurer; she then told me how my grandfather had been one of the leaders of his community and a go-between for them and the law and government officials of 1932 Harlan County, Ky., where he had moved the family for work. But being a go-between didn’t much help him when a neighbor found him alongside the road, beaten and left for dead. It was not that Harlan County’s white coal miners were well-treated, because they were not; but black coal miners were treated even worse. Grandfather was in the process of forming a coal miners union for those black coal miners. It was a time when coal mine companies even had sheriffs shot.

I don’t know if fingerprints are genetic; but I do know that many of the loops and hoops of life through which my grandfather went are all so common to me. In a sense, his life’s fingerprints have touched my life. His hands, polished by the handles of pick-axes and shovels, have helped to shape me into me, though with less extreme consequences. Could it have been that he imprinted them on me when he held my tiny hand?

I say that because, in a sense, though gone, our ancestors never really die. They are, in part, a living part of us. We must understand that those who follow us will feel and be likewise, and shaped by calloused ancestral hands of which they may have never softly touched.

So, if we truly want to divert the flow of our children’s futures from the poor society that we have made for them, then we must change our own presents by what we now do right.

One day, when we are no longer physically among them, a 5-year-old descendent of yours may be sitting upon their knee, examining their fingernails and asking questions. And when that 5-year-old is old enough to observe the grooves that grow in their own fingernails, they will see the mirror of the past within them, and feel your soft touch upon them; a touch that even their own children will feel.

No matter what, by what we do and by the grace of God, your grandchildren’s future are in your hands; and it is later than you think.

Contact Ken Hamilton at

Contact Ken Hamilton at