Monday, April 19, 2010

Compassion for My Mother’s Hands

These are my mother’s hands.

left hand right hand 2

Actually, they are my hands. But when I look at them, I see my mother’s hands.

I don’t remember particularly noticing my mom’s hands’ appearance until I was an adolescent. My mother would have been in her mid-forties then, and at that time there were many things about her that were objectionable to me. Her middle-age spread, her taste in polyester (this was the ‘70s), her suddenly annoying way of speaking. And her hands. I didn’t like the brown spots, or the rough knuckles, or the crepe-like texture to the skin, through which the veins bulged blue-ishly. I never wanted hands like hers.

But I have memories and impressions of my mother's hands that go back before I cared about their appearance. Hers were hands that held her funny nurse’s scissors in a funny way, in the left hand. Hers were hands that shook the thermometer down authoritatively. These were among her RN ways, mysterious and estimable.

Hers were hands that, when the driving on the way to piano/ballet/skating/swimming/pottery class got hectic, reached for a cigarette, punched in the lighter and retrieved it, glowing, to ignite the Carton, rolled down the window a crack, and smoked with resolve – as if one drove better with just one hand.

Hers were hands that gripped my small hands tightly as she trimmed my fingernails, keeping them piano-student short, like hers. Hers were hands that played Bach preludes and fugues in the living room when we kids were elsewhere – she didn’t want an audience. I didn’t understand this back then, but now I do. Even with one child (she had four), I relish times when I am not regarded as “mother,” when I am just myself, the object of no one’s eye but my own.

My mother played beautifully, by the way, when she did. She played Bach and Beethoven, Bacharach and Manilow. She played what my sister and I thought was, “You See The Sky, The Sky’s in Love with You.” And songs like "Moon River” and “Born Free,” for which we mocked her.

I remember her hands on her hips, backwards, when the “dumb dishes” were done. I remember her hands ironing clothes distractedly, a cigarette and ashtray within reach. I remember her showing me she had stopped wearing her wedding and engagement rings, about six months after my father left. I remember her hands at the typewriter, typing up papers on history and economics and policy, as she worked over the years toward a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. I remember her hands spanking me when I was sixteen and had insisted on washing my dirty hair, even though it was well past bedtime and she had said no.

My mom’s hands now wear rings she bought for herself. Her hands haven’t fingered cigarettes in a long time. She still puts her hands on her hips, backwards, when the dumb dishes are done.

right hand a

These are my hands, but when I look at them, I see all of my mother’s hands. I am now in my late forties myself, and I find many things about my hands and body objectionable. But when I see my hands as my mother’s hands lately, I see an opening for compassion.

Compassion for the woman she was, and the woman she is.

Compassion for the child I was, and the adolescent, so full of judgment and uncertainty.

Compassion for the woman I am now, the woman I have become, with these hands.

To peer into this opening is partly a gift, and partly yet an aspiration.

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