One of my writer friends recently issued a challenge in her blog to describe the hands of someone; to try and show this person to the reader by showing her hands. I immediately thought of Mom’s hands. If I had to describe them in one word, I’d have to use the word “busy.”
I always feel a little inward rebellion when someone talks about a “Proverbs 31” woman. The woman described in that chapter is too good to be true, like the superwomen described in magazines displayed at the supermarket checkouts. I can’t relate to anyone who can hold down a full time job, keep a perfect house, serve perfect meals, raise perfect children, and still have the energy to fulfill all her husband’s fantasies. No, I think was missed a few of those classes along with the presentation classes I wrote about earlier in the week. But Proverbs 31:13 says She…works with eager hands, and that’s a pretty good description of Mom’s hands. She was probably taught that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and she took that teaching to heart.
Mom kept an immaculate house. At least once a week everything from floor to ceiling and everything in between was swept, vacuumed, washed, or polished. Curtains and blinds were regularly taken down and washed, silver was polished, and spiders didn’t dare start a web in one of her corners. She took a part-time job when I started to school, but she was fast with a broom and still kept up with her cleaning. A few years later when she went to work full time, she didn’t lower her standards but instead enlisted the rest of the family to help in the weekly ritual. Well, most of the family. By then my brother Jim was involved with school and church activities and various part-time jobs that exempted him, but Dad and I knew what our Saturday morning duties were. I changed bed and bath linens, cleaned the bathroom, and dusted; Dad did the floors; and Mom stayed in the kitchen. She cooked a lot, especially on Saturday, and while she cooked, she cleaned. Her appliances always sparkled like they had just been delivered, and her kitchen floor really was clean enough to serve as a dinner plate if you were so inclined.
Her hands were fast as well as busy, so after she finished cooking and cleaning, she had time to spare. She filled that time with crocheting and sewing. She made lots of lacy white doilies for various table surfaces and chair arms. These were washed, starched, and ironed along with the rest of the laundry. She worked on a tablecloth for a while, but I don’t think she ever finished it. As I got older, she took more interest in sewing. She made a lot of my clothes, and when she wasn’t making something new, she was altering or repurposing something old.
When I got married and became the mistress of my own household, I found it hard to live up to her standards. My hands were much slower than hers, and I was more interested in socializing than she was, so I resented the time I spent cleaning. I wasn’t as good with a needle as she was either. I tried, but could never get anything to fit just right, and I hated to redo anything. But there was one thing we both enjoyed doing with our hands – making music.
Mom never took music lessons, but she loved music. She played guitar and piano by ear and could probably have played other instruments as well if she’d had access to them. I loved sitting in front of her and watching her hands on the frets and strings or sitting beside her and watching her hands on the keyboard. When I started playing the piano, I think she enjoyed watching my hands, too. She wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of mom, but one Sunday morning she was holding my hand during church. She laid my hand out flat on her lap and traced my fingers with hers.
“You have the long fingers of a pianist,” she said.
In her later years, she hated it when her hands started to age. She bought jar after jar of vanishing cream to fight the brown spots that marred them and became self-conscious as arthritis twisted her fingers into painful knots. She held up her hands to family members and joked about being able to point to one side or the other without moving her hands, but in public she kept them folded inconspicuously in her lap.
With the onset of Alzheimer’s, her lifetime cleaning habits suffered along with other aspects of her life, but her hands remained busy. Many times I saw her rooting around in her purse or a drawer, taking things out, examining them, and putting them back in. My theory was that she started looking for something but forgot what she was after, so she kept rooting around, hoping it would come back to her.
After she became unable to read she didn’t know what to do with her hands while she and Dad watched TV, so she picked. If she found a loose thread, she pulled at it until she unraveled a hem, or if she found a rough spot on her arm or her face, she scratched and picked it raw. If she found a stiff hair on her chin, she tried to tweeze it with her fingernails until the surrounding skin was red and angry looking. And she couldn’t keep her hands off her teeth. She had some bone loss around the roots of her lower front teeth causing them to loosen. After she moved into a residential care facility where she no longer had me constantly reminding her to leave them alone, she worried two of them right out of her mouth.
Her hands got her in more trouble with her recent skin problems. The shingles-like outbreaks that turned out to be a rare kind of autoimmune skin disease were a constant source of irritation to her, so she scratched. The last couple of times I’ve visited her, her hands have been encased in protective mittens designed to keep her from causing further damage to herself. It’s hard to hold her hands with them on, but unlike her, I’m very touchy-feely, and I found a way. Since her recognition of me is fading, it’s about the only way I have left of connecting with her. The last day of my last visit, she didn’t have the mittens on, and I was able to hold her hands skin to skin. The arthritis prevented me from laying them out flat like she did mine in church that day, but it didn’t prevent me from remembering, and it didn’t stop me from thanking God for her busy hands.