I have my mother’s hands. That’s not something I’ve ever taken as a compliment – no offense, Mom.
When I was a teenager measuring each and every body part against the impossible standards of Seventeen magazine, this was one area that always came up short. Literally and figuratively.
Our hands are broad and short-fingered. A network of lines criss-crosses both palm and back. I had more lines on my hands than a New York City map even in my 20s. The adjectives “sturdy” and “capable” come to mind when you see them; milkmaid hands in search of a cow.
My mother’s hands were always busy when I was a kid. I remember them…
wrist-deep in noxious substances. As the mother of 9 children she handled more than her fair share of disgusting stuff that is best left to the imagination. Fully 4 little bottoms might be diaper-clad at any one time. She progressed from cloth diapers to the first-generation disposables which were supposed to dissolve in the toilet (can we get a plunger here?) and finally to the modern disposables. Dad helped, but as a stay-at-home mom, the lion’s share of the doody duty fell to her. Mom was a one-woman bomb squad, at least until us “big girls” were old enough to be sent to work in the doo-doo mines.
defrosting broccoli. It’s not that Mom was a bad cook; it’s just that the unrelenting drudgery of putting breakfast, lunch and dinner on the table for that many people, day in and out, sucked most of the joyful creativity out of the process. Her go-to menu consisted of hot dogs, frozen broccoli and baked potatoes. In the summer she switched to my Dad’s favorite: corn-on-the-cob and BLTs for almost every meal.
up to her elbows in a laundry tub. With 11 people in the house, the mountain of dirty clothes never really wore down. All she could do was take a little off the top when the peak threatened to hit the ceiling. Mom spent so much time in the dank basement she should have been a troll. She never complained about this, surprisingly. The basement was the only place in the house where we would leave her alone. If we ventured down there we were sure to be pressed into service carting clean clothes up two flights of stairs. Mom cherished the solitude she could find only in this damp, mildewed sanctuary.
ink-stained, clutching the edges of a newspaper. My mother is a voracious reader. The Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, the local paper, the Wall Street Journal – she’s read them all for years. Her fingers are the only hint that there is a person hiding behind the paper wall barricading her in her chair. Back in the day, sticky little hands were sure to rip that wall down before she ever finished an article. Although she’ll tackle the occasional work of fiction, her passions have always been politics, biographies and history. She has been a proud member of the AAUW and their book club for almost 60 years. Some of her newspapers may have scaled back operations, but not my mom. She is still one of the most widely read people I know.
slapping at my Dad’s hand as he absent-mindedly raised it to his mouth to chew on a nail. Mom is the eternal optimist. She remains confident she can break him of this detested habit, even though she’s had no luck in all the years they have been married.
wielding scissors. Her passion for current events and politics leads to a need to share. Rarely do more than a few weeks go by without a familiar manila envelope showing up in our mailboxes, chock full of articles cut out of her endless newspapers. The salient parts are underlined and extra commentary written in the margin. Mom is Jiminy Cricket to all of her little Pinocchios. Hers is the voice of our civic consciences, exhorting us to stay informed, to write our congressmen, to DO something to right perceived wrongs in the system.
writing notes. My mother rarely forgets a birthday, a holiday, or a special occasion. She takes the time to pick out just the right card (usually mushy), and then underlines the sentiments that really speak to her. With 9 children, plus spouses, plus grandchildren, brothers, sisters, in-laws, friends – the task is never-ending. She casts her net wide to keep the far-flung edges of our extended family together. No matter the card, no matter the occasion, the message she is sending is clear: you are special to me.
bandaging boo-boos. Over the years Mom has handled more injuries than the local emergency room. Not all of these were physical. I remember being home from college one weekend and being pressed into duty to help change the sheets on their bed. My little sister Judy interrupted the task. Struggling to navigate the shark-infested waters of junior high school, she dissolved into tears at the betrayal of a “friend”. I slipped quietly out of the room, but the image of the two of them seated on the half-made bed remains with me to this day. Judy sobbed on her shoulder while Mom cradled her awkward, adolescent baby in her arms. Her capable hand gently smoothed her daughter’s hair, over and over again.
There, there. Mommy’s here.
Mom doesn’t wear nail polish. Her hands’ only adornments are her engagement and wedding rings. These are sparkling testaments to her good taste in both diamonds and men. She and my father will celebrate 56 years of marriage this summer.
A stroke a few years back has slowed her down a bit, but at 81 she’s definitely not out. Dad attached a bicycle horn to her walker and she gives it a brisk squeeze if she needs to clear dawdlers out of her path at Big Boy. Going out to breakfast is her favorite sport, another feature I have inherited.
She worries that her handwriting is illegible now, but we all hasten to reassure her: “No, your handwriting was always horrible, Mom.”
When I look back on life with Mom I realize I will be lucky if my hands accomplish ¼th of what hers have done. If mine can hold even a fraction of the love that her hands have held, I know I will have been blessed beyond measure to have my mother’s hands.
p.s. Mom spent the last few days in the hospital and hopes to go home today. I wish I could be there on Mother’s Day to tell her in person:
Hope you’re feeling better. Don’t scare us like that again. WE LOVE YOU, MOM!