The Thing About Hands

As far back as I can remember, my grandma Elsie had the same hands.  They were not pretty hands, in fact, they were quite disfigured.  They were covered with age spots and scars, from a life of hard work both inside, and out.  Her hands were gnarled and twisted from arthritis, with her fingers taking a definite turn away from her thumb.  Each knuckle hard and obtrusive in any menial task.  She had large hands for a woman, and when I look at pictures of her long before I came into her life, I can see strength in them.  In fact, looking back it is odd to see the pictures of her and grandpa when they were first courting, and then newly married.  The pictures where they are holding hands and the softness that is displayed in each tender touch caught on paper.  It almost seems a disconnect from the hard working, contorted hands that I came to know so well.

I would watch her work so often.  So many times I would wonder how she could even hold the paring knife, as she peeled the potatoes.  She had to have peeled thousands of potatoes in her life.  And her pies, always from scratch.  I would watch her mix the dough, and knead it with her hands so strong and efficiently, that it defied the frailness that her hands displayed.  When I was young, I would watch as she washed all of our clothes using the old washboard (her washer came later in her life).  I thought it looked fun and she let me help her but truly, I never had the strength to clean the clothes like she did, and I gave up easily.  I would also venture out to her flower garden and help her pull weeds at times.  She would work hard, pulling and pushing the dirt and always, I watched her hands.  I sat mesmerized by their strength, though they looked so fragile, as though they could just break at any moment.

Her hands were a mix of strong and soft all at once.  Tough when I needed to be reprimanded and soft when I was hurt, or scared.  There were times when I would get in trouble, and she would be angry and grab my arm, or swat my behind (always deserved) and I think that I was always surprised at the strength in her grasp.  It defied the very nature of her twisted hands.  And yet when I was hurt, or sad I remember the softness in her hands as she would mend my wounds, or hold me in the rocker for a time until I was calm.  As she rocked she would stroke my hair tenderly.

I think the thing I remember the most though was her sewing and her crocheting.  She would sit for hours and put together the most beautiful quilts.  Some pretty, and others literally a smattering of what seemed a million pieces stitched together, random and with no pattern.  Those were my favorite.  And her doilies and her embroidered towels, delicate and soft.  Each time I watched her hands as she worked, amazed that her knobbly hands could work so fluidly, and deftly.

I think of grandma’s hands often.  In my minds eye I can see them as if she were sitting next to me.  I think of them even more because as I have gotten older, I am noticing a definite change to my knuckles.  I also think of my aunt Lavilla, I remember her always telling us girls to “drink plenty of milk” so that we didn’t suffer grandma’s fate.  I wonder if I will have grandma’s hands one day, and if my (future-hopefully) grandchildren will remember my hands in the way that I remember grandma’s.  I kind of hope so.

I also remember my dad’s hands.  In fact there are times at work when I will take care of a gentleman and their hands will remind me of my dad’s hands.  They are always farmers and their hands are always clean, but their fingernails always stained with dirt and grease.  Years of hard work with one’s hands are hard to erase with soap and water.

That was my dad’s hands.  I loved his hands.  I remember thinking that he had such big, strong hands and yet, he could do the daintiest of tasks with them.  Once when the alternator went out on our minivan, he drove all the way down to Rochester to fix it for us.  He couldn’t find the part in time so he sat on my front step and literally took it all apart and REBUILT it.  It seemed there were a million bushings and bolts, and he had them all laid out.  I watched and was mesmerized by the fact that those large hands could work with the smallest of pieces so effortlessly.  He found the part that was worn, and was able to replace that and then back together it went.  That alternator lasted for the rest of the time we owned that vehicle.

That same trip, those same hands found the time and dexterity to sit at our dining table to make play-dough dinosaurs with Darien.

As a little girl, I would wander the farm behind my dad often.  I remember him carrying 2-5 gallon buckets of feed for the pigs in each hand.  They were strong beyond belief.  When he would work in the shop repairing a tractor, I watched as his hands would be full of grease and dirt as he wrenched his hands in tight spots to fix the problem.  They were hardy enough to carry heavy parts, and yet delicate enough to take the tiniest screw or bolt and manage it in it’s place.

Often, I would stand at the sink and watch him clean up for dinner and I remember him cleaning his hands with the most abrasive pumice hand cleaner he could.  He would scrub at them with a scrub brush as hard as he could.  It washed away the bulk of the grease and dirt, but no matter how hard he tried it was nearly impossible to get the stain out from under his nails.  I loved the smell of his hands when he was done cleaning them.  His nails were always a bit ragged.  I am unsure that I ever saw him use a nail clipper, though he must’ve.  I believe mostly his nails were ripped or torn off at the edges from their hard work.  His hands (and face) the only parts of him that were tan, were leathered from the sun and years of work.

Me:  Why don’t you wear gloves dad?

Dad: (laughs softly) They get in my way….

That was my dad.  And those were his hands.

I also remember my brother Daren’s hands.  Not in the way that I remember grandma’s and dad’s, but I remember them for another reason.  When were on our way to his wake my dad told me this….

Dad:  Whatever you do, don’t touch his hands.

Me:  (totally confused) Why?

Dad:  Because it will never leave you.  You will carry that feeling with you forever.  Remember him as he was….

As I stood over Daren’s casket I remember it being so surreal.  I kept thinking that I saw him breathing, and I was sure at any moment he would sit up and laugh in his Daren way and say it was all a joke…

As I stood there my dad’s warning rattled through my head.  But he was my brother and as I stood there, heart broken and devastated I just wanted him to know that I was there.  So I reached out and laid my hand on his hand.  It was just for second because I recoiled it back quickly.  I was unprepared for what I felt.  His hand, once warm and robust was now cold and stiff.  My heart hurt deeper.  It only solidified the knowledge that he was truly gone.  I stepped back and stared at Daren tears welling in my eyes.  Soon, I felt a strong hand on my shoulder and I turned to see dad standing just behind me.  For a second I thought he was angry, but his grip only said, “it’s okay”.

Dad:  I was afraid you would touch him.

Me:  I couldn’t help it, I just had to….

We just stood there together.

33 years later I still remember that touch.  I can feel it as though it were yesterday.  My dad was right, it never leaves you.

15 years ago as I stood over my dad’s casket, I looked at his hands folded across his chest.  I knew better but I reached out and laid my hand on his knowing that for the rest of my life, the memory and feeling would never leave me.  But those hands, that would be the last time I saw them and I needed to feel them one last time.  I laid my hand on dad’s hand, not long because again, I found it still caught me off guard, but I left it there long enough to honor those hard working hands, and the dad I adored.

We lost grandma after dad.  Yes, she had to bury her son.  It broke her in a way.  Standing by her casket…..I again knew that I would, but this time I was more prepared.  I reached out and laid my hand on her hand, and I embraced every crooked part of her hand.  Those hands, her hands, the ones that fed us, clothed us and held us for so much of our life were special to me, and I knew that I needed to remember them always.

And finally my mom. I have her hands. In fact, Roxy and I both do. Medium length, somewhat thick with shorter nails. Similar knuckles and veins that pop up with activity and tasks. I remember as a young girl, sitting close to her and I would push on the veins of her hand just to watch them submerge and pop back up. She never wore a wedding ring. In fact, when she did wear rings (which was occasional), it looked out of place on her purposeful fingers. It is the same with me. I have mostly ever just wore a wedding ring, rarely adorning my fingers with more than that. I have always felt my hands were more for work and nurturing, than pretty hands to display.

It’s a funny thing, hands.  They tell a story about each of us, more intricately then we could ever verbalize of our own.  With age, our hands begin to take on the character of our life.  They offer us an insight to the story that defines each of us.   They are the tools in which we use to provide, nurture and love those around us.  I think them amazing, that with just a thought you can move your hands into action to perform whatever task you ask of them.  They are strong and sure when they are required to labor.  They are nimble and quick when they are required a playful task.  They are agile and efficient when providing sustenance.  They are deft and skillful when allowing for talent.  They are firm and reassuring when times are difficult.  And mostly, they are soft and subtle when asked to love.

For all my life I have been intrigued by hands.  They tell a story, if you care to notice them.

I stumbled upon this article and I loved it.  The truth in it, profound.  The lesson, everlasting.


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