Because my father lost his hands, my mother made a gift of hers. Cuticles ragged, knuckles scraped, fingernails smashed—farm work showed her no mercy.
Her hands were made for more delicate things, but she gladly sacrificed them because, really, what else was she to do? My father needed her, and she loved him, so she put her hands to work on our farm. She should have had the soft and beautiful hands more suited to her soft and beautiful heart, but life had other plans for her.
My father continued to farm after his accident, his prosthetic “hooks,” as he always called them, levied recklessly, the steel used to hammer and pry, to gouge and pull. Often, while working on machinery, his hook pinched or smashed my mother’s finger, and she took in a breath. If I were nearby, I’d hear her swallowing air. She might drop the wrench she’d been using. She might shake her finger. My father looked sheepish. Sometimes he asked her if she was all right. Sometimes he cursed. “Goddamn it,” he might say, angry with himself because he’d hurt her. Other times, he said nothing, just looked down at those hooks and maybe banged them together, angry with the fact of them as he waited for my mother to once more take up the wrench. He spoke to her gently. “Let’s try again,” he said.
I’m remembering all this today as we draw closer to the start of another school year. My mother was a grade school teacher for thirty-eight years. Her hands were meant for turning the pages of books, for cutting paper into lacy snowflakes to decorate her classroom in winter, for moving across a tablet page with a red marking pencil, for petting the heads of girls and boys who for whatever reasons needed her affection.
But she gave her hands to my father. I never heard her utter a single word of complaint. She put away her nail files and emery boards and fingernail polishes, and her hands became rough with the signs of her work and her love.
When my father died, she wept over her casket. She said, “I’ve taken care of him all my life. Now what am I supposed to do?”
She lived six years beyond him, spent so many hours alone, her hands resting on the arms of her chair, her fingers lifting and falling, one after the other, as if she were a young girl, playing scales on a piano. I lived away from her then. We wrote letters. She wrote to me once toward the end of summer about watching the schoolgirls pass her house. She wrote about the sound of their bright voices, the way they interlaced their fingers and skipped along the sidewalk. Oh, their bright voices, she wrote. Oh, those beautiful hands.