The Lesson of My Mother’s Hands

“Those hands,” my sister says, picking up one of my mother’s gnarled hands where it sticks out from under the sheet of her hospital bed. She holds it a moment and then sets it down gently. My weary eyes follow the movement, stopping to rest on the familiar knuckles, knotted and curled from years of hard physical labor, arthritis in every joint.

It’s hard for me to see my mother like this, so still and silent, this tiny woman who bore and raised fifteen children. In life she was always moving, always busy. My brother said she’d been shelling peas the evening before she had a massive stroke in her sleep.

This morning, the doctors remove her from life support, telling us she probably has no more than 48 hours to live. My father is heartbroken. After 68 years of marriage, he does not have the chance to say goodbye.

One by one, her children and grandchildren, come to her side. Some stroke her cheek. Some kiss her face. Up until this point, I do neither. I find it hard to equate my active and talkative mother to this still, quiet figure alone in the hospital bed.

Now the others have returned home.
Only my husband, sister and I remain, keeping vigil. It’s in this moment, when all is lost, and there’s little hope she can hear me, I cannot resist reaching out and touching my mother’s hand. If she knows I’m there, she gives no sign.

Her hand is warm and solid in mine, surprising me. Can she really be near death? How many tasks have these hands completed?

I run my thumb across her knobby knuckles, worn with 88 years of living. A fragment of memory surfaces. I’m a toddler, tugging on my mother’s skirt while she does the dishes. She talks to me, but her hands keep moving.

These hands changed dirty diapers, cooked meals, washed dishes and scrubbed toilets—all without a word of complaint. And when one of us didn’t feel well, which was frequent, it was these hands that felt our foreheads for a temperature and whipped up batches of strawberry jello or poured Ginger Ale.

More memories burst forth from a well buried deep within my heart.
Her hands rolling out dough to bake pies in the old kitchen in the century home where I was born. As she works, she gives me instructions.

“The secret to pie is to touch the dough as little as possible,” she explains. She gives me a piece of dough and tells me to roll it out and smear it with butter and cinnamon and sugar to make what she calls tootsie rolls. I do it, trying to handle the dough as little as possible.

I watch as my mother makes her signature design in the top of the pie crust, a curved line with individual grains of wheat. Sunlight streams through the window.

“How did you learn to make such good pies?” I ask.

“My grandmother taught me when I was a little girl,” she tells me. “She would give me a piece of dough to roll out and put in a little pan. My early pies did not turn out so well,” she laughs, and I smile as I picture the scene she describes, right down to the tiny toy pie pan she must have used.

We put the tootsie rolls in the oven and when they come out a short while later, they are so hot and bubbly, I burn my hands and mouth trying to eat one. But man are they worth it.

Someone coughs, and I’m back in the hospital room, still holding my mother’s hand. I lay it gently down, wondering if I’ll ever make a pie as crusty and flakey as my mom’s. I never expressed much interest in cooking as a child, and as an adult, I’ve been far too busy to make a pie from scratch. Little did I know that early lesson would be my one and only.

But wasn’t that always the way of things?
My mother’s lessons were never planned. They came in the midst of a multitude of tasks.

Once during canning season, I asked my mother how she could possibly enjoy her life of constant chores and sacrifice. “How can you like this?” I asked. “Don’t you get bored?”

In a rare instance, my mother set down her vegetable peeler and turned to face me. “Never,” she said. “I am very happy with my life…with Daddy and you kids. I can’t imagine a different life. I’ve never once been bored.”

And that was that. She picked up the peeler, finished the mountain of carrots in front of her and went in the house to make enough cheeseburgers and french fries to feed a small army.

I swipe at my blurry eyes that haven’t seemed to stop watering once since I heard the news. My head understands what is happening, but my heart can’t seem to keep up.

Two days later, she is gone.
The day before her funeral is July 4. I don’t have the heart for fireworks, but I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I decide to invite the neighbors over for a picnic.

In a rare instance of domesticity, I ask my daughter, who is named after her grandmother, to cut some daisies from our backyard and find a vase for them. She returns from the kitchen, a vintage blue canning jar in her hands. Where she found it, I don’t know. In must have been buried in the back of a cupboard. I gasp when I read the familiar writing, so bittersweet in this moment. Organic Mixed Beans.

In death, my mother’s hands send me a final reminder.

“Life is meant to be lived,” they say. “A life well-lived can be a simple life of baking and canning and taking care of others. In simplicity, we discover true happiness…we find fulfillment.”

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17 Comments

  1. This is beautiful! I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother, she sounds like a truly lovely person. I was lucky to meet her briefly once, and I’ll never forget how sweet she was with Vaughn. Continued prayers for you and your family.

    • That’s so cool that you met my mom and witnessed the book signing Danielle. The last time I spoke with my mom she told me she had read my book and it inspired her to think about writing her own book. My mom used to write a running column in the newspaper. The other night I dreamt she finished her book and showed me her manuscript. It was beautiful without one error.

  2. Beautiful, she taught you well. My thoughts and prayers are with you as you traverse this new path in life. Let her word and actions be your roadmap.

  3. Hands bring such great memories. One of the things my son remembers most about his dad who died suddenly when he was 13 is his hands. Inspired by this I’ve had both my parents make handprints for me and their grandson, along with other family member. I made a simple book with them. This is a lovely remembrance of your Mom. The mason jar of daisies–perfect! Thank you for sharing.

  4. As always, beautifully said.

  5. Thank you for sharing this incredible story of your Mother and you. She is smiling from heaven and proud as peaches! God rest her soul and may He comfort you at this time. Truth be told, she’s probably already made her way to Heaven’s kitchen and pitchin’ in!

  6. Amanda, a beautiful post, you had me in tears. I’m so sorry for your loss. It is always too soon, no matter what their age. She filled your soul with wonderful memories, cherish them and pass them on. With a house that full it was a wonder that any one child got much of her attention, but it seems she gave you what you needed. Prayers for her and your family. Heaven is enjoying her pie as we speak.

    • Thanks for the kind words Barb. It’s been tough. I could use one of your famous hugs.

      • Barbara Heintz

        July 17, 2017 at 12:47 am

        You can have as many as you want. I was in your position a few months ago, and kindness and caring of others definitely helped me throgh.

        • So sorry for the loss of your beloved Mother. What wonderful memories you and your family have of her which will be with your forever. My thoughts and prayers are with you. With sympathy.
          Barb

          • Thanks Barb. I appreciate thoughts and prayers. It has not been easy but hardest on my dad. Writing this post in some way helps me deal.

  7. Judy Bartholomew

    July 18, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    What a poignant, touching story! I’m sure it is just the way your mother would want to be remembered. It sounds like a wonderful life to me! I’m so sorry for you and all of your family. I wish I had known her better.

    • Thank you for thinking of me with the card you sent. I’ve been meaning to let you know. Very touching. I will have to think of what to do in my mother’s honor.

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