My Mothers’ Hands
By Patricia Guy
Sometimes when I look at my hands, I see my mother’s hands. Hers were strong, capable hands, weathered by the sun. Hands that pet the cat, patted the back of a baby, and loved to grow tomatoes. She wore a simple white gold band with a wave pattern, no diamonds or gemstones for her. No polished nails or white, tapering fingers. She had serviceable hands, meant for hard work and hard play.
My mother wore a Timex watch with a steel, flexible band, a watch with an easy to read face, so that when she took a child’s vitals in the middle of the night she could easily see the second hand. She was a pediatrics night nurse, a special breed. Though she was caring and nurturing, it was in a no frills, no nonsense kind of way. There was a brisk efficiency with which she checked your forehead for a fever, and yet I knew she cared about the results, the information, she gathered in this way.
My mother’s hands taught me how to bait a hook, how to tie a shoe, how to swim, wrap a bandage, cook over an open fire, raise a tent, how to cook a huge pot of chili when the snows came, and how to reach out to protect. Before seat belts were required, my mother’s right hand would dart out to hold us against the car seat, protecting us if she had to stop suddenly in traffic.
She taught us to wield a sharp knife to slice open and gut a fish. She felt it was important that if you were to eat a fish that we know how to catch one and prepare it for the table. At the end of the fishing season in Galveston she would hold a huge fish fry at the boat club and invite all the young nurses and interns from the Children’s hospital. It was quite a party!
I loved to watch her put together the Christmas decorations with such care. There were a pair of gold painted wooden shoes from Holland that she carefully arranged ornaments and greenery in until the balance was just right. We had a big house, and she enjoyed decorating every room, even the bathroom! My personal favorite was a Santa Claus toilet seat cover that covered his eyes when the lid was lifted. On Christmas eve she would jump into her red jeep and “play Santa”, delivering the cookies we had baked to our neighbors. I liked watching her light all of the candles when we got home, and building a big fire in the fireplace.
She taught us simple crafts as Den Mother for my twin’s Cub Scouts Troup (I was allowed in as a mascot). Sometimes it was as simple as colored nail polish designs on a block of wood, or just hammering nails, and sometimes as adventurous as pouring melted paraffin and crayons over cracked ice to make candles with a porous texture.
I don’t remember her talking much with her hands, but I do remember a favorite photo of her in Mexico, holding a barracuda up against the sun, laughing out loud, true fish worship! When music, especially live music was playing, she would clap along, though always a little off rhythm. She loved to dance, but I don’t remember her hands dancing.
As I watched my mother’s hands age, I was aware that time was passing, that changes were afoot that could not be reversed. The age spots came, the skin reflected the hours fishing in the sun. I felt a little sorry for her then. Though never a glamour girl, she had her own vanities, and she let me know that it wasn’t easy for her to watch the changes in the mirror, or in her own hands. In later life she wore a custom silver ring of a lively, flowing fish, made by a friend who admired her “Joi de vie” character. Towards the end, I remember staring at the IVs in her hands, taped so as not to pull too hard on the veins. Somehow those hands reflected her strength while expressing this new fragility.
My own hands are now aging, like hers. The spots are appearing, the texture of the skin is changing. I, too, wear my nails short, without polish, so that I can garden, play music, cook, and create with them. My right hand is stiff from the side effects of a wrist injury, and though still serviceable, requires continuous care. My hands still love to dance, express, and flow when I talk. They love to caress and touch and hold people, plants, animals, and wonderful textures. My hands love to feel all there is to feel.
They, too, are telling me that time is passing, that changes are afoot that I can’t reverse. I, too, have a simple wave patterned band on my left hand to express my marriage, and a ring on my right hand to express my own character, silver, with a prayer wheel. My plain Timex watch has been replaced by a Fitbit watch, telling me the time and how far I have come. It has no second hand to measure vitals.
Now when I remember my mothers’ hands I see my own hands. If she were here today, and we had a nice long chat while peeling shrimp, what would she have to tell me about living fully, with grace, strength, courage, vitality and dignity, in this the third age of my life? Maybe her hands have already taught me all I need to know.
Las Manos de Mi Madre as sung by Mercedes Sosa