Scott Russell Sanders: Buckeye


Sanders reflects on the beauty and poison of nature @ Terrain.

Years after my father’s heart quit, I keep in a wooden box on my desk the two buckeyes that were in his pocket when he died. Once the size of plums, the brown seeds are shriveled now, hollow, hard as pebbles, yet they still gleam from the polish of his hands. He used to reach for them in his overalls or suit pants and click them together, or he would draw them out, cupped in his palm, and twirl them with his blunt carpenter’s fingers, all the while humming snatches of old tunes.

“Do you really believe buckeyes keep off arthritis?” I asked him more than once.

He would flex his hands and say, “I do so far.”

My father never paid much heed to pain. Near the end, when his worn knee often slipped out of joint, he would pound it back in place with a rubber mallet. If a splinter worked into his flesh beyond the reach of tweezers, he would heat the blade of his knife over a cigarette lighter and slice through the skin. He sought to ward off arthritis not because he feared pain but because he lived through his hands, and he dreaded the swelling of knuckles, the stiffening of fingers. What use would he be if he could no longer hold a hammer or guide a plow? When he was a boy he had known farmers not yet 40 years old whose hands had curled into claws, men so crippled up they could not tie their own shoes, could not sign their names.
“I mean to tickle my grandchildren when they come along,” he told me, “and I mean to build doll houses and turn spindles for tiny chairs on my lathe.”
So he fondled those buckeyes as if they were charms, carrying them with him when our family moved from Ohio at the end of my childhood, bearing them to new homes in Louisiana, then Oklahoma, Ontario, and Mississippi, carrying them still on his final day when pain a thousand times fiercer than arthritis gripped his heart.

Image: Christina Venedict at

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