Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Twisted hands, cheerful heart

 Yesterday we celebrated Mother’s Day with a barbecue at my son’s home. At the end of the meal, David asked everyone to give a memory of their mother, and we went around the table. David said some nice things about me. Hal reminisced about his mom… and so on. When my turn came up the only thing that popped into my head was the interesting coincidence that that very day, May 14, was also my mother’s birthday. How amazing, right? Everyone said their own version of Wow! and we went on to the next subject.

Later I wondered why I hadn’t said something more significant about this woman I remember with so much gratitude. Something about her kindness, her simple meals, how she read books to us every night, how she sewed my Easter dress one year and bought me a bonnet and shiny patent leather shoes to go with it. Actually, this is all rather normal. Not especially interesting. Nothing funny or extraordinary. Just common ordinary grace.

But what’s wrong with that?

OK. If there’s one thing that stands out in my memories of Mom, it’s her hands. When I was in grade school, the swelling and pain in her feet and hands were finally diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. My parents didn’t make a big deal about the diagnosis, so there was no family trauma surrounding it. Mom began to take medications for the pain and inflammation, but she never talked about it or complained. She just kept on doing mom stuff and going off to work everyday.

Both my parents were public school teachers, Dad in the high school and Mom in primary school. Mom continued teaching, but I noticed the swelling in her hands and that it was becoming harder for her to do stuff around the house. We kids had our chores, but we didn’t always cheerfully comply.

By the time I was a high school freshman, her hands and feet had become bent, swollen and deformed. She was declared legally disabled and began to receive disability compensation from the teachers’ union. My parents handled this calmly so we kids saw no reason to be alarmed. Life went on. She became a stay-at-home mom again, going about her duties with a cheerful spirit

But with the years her limbs became more and more twisted and her whole body was affected in different ways. She died at the age of 57, more from the effects of years of taking Corticosteroids for the pain than from the disease itself.

Sometime after her death, I was doing research on my family background, and I came across a kind of manifesto Mom had written when she was 17. It’s entitled, “My Ideal Woman,” and is a list of all the characteristics she wanted to grow into. In the introduction, she admits that, “My Ideal Woman is so idealistic as to be rather fictional sounding.” A list of 14 points follows, betraying both the idealism and the immaturity of a teenager. What was especially poignant to me was that the first two points had to do with hands. She wrote of her “ideal woman,”

1.     She does not have to excel in outward beauty but must show character in the mold of her face and in the shape of her hands.

2.     Her hands are shapely and she has well-kept nails.

It’s a mercy she couldn’t see ahead to the hands life finally dealt her.

I will list a few other of her points. They all make me smile.

6.      She does not think of ‘self’ first and is cheerful except when it is impossible to be so. (A little bit of realism there.)

7.      All of her clothes are made by her own hands (except for wraps, accessories, and undergarments). (So glad for the clarification.)

8.      She is healthy and has suffered no illnesses save those common to most people such as measles and mumps.

9.      She scorns gossip and secretly is contemptuous of those who do so extensively.

1      She has poise and a wonderful personality, making her very popular.

She goes on to write of her tall husband (right) and two blond children (wrong, there were three of us), her artistic output, and her excelling at sports (especially golf, swimming, and tennis). She ends with saying that her ideal woman “is somewhat like Abraham Lincoln and Louisa Alcott only she doesn’t have Louisa’s temper or impatience.”

Oh, and she also mentions that her ideal woman is a Quaker.

Life certainly turned out differently for my mother than her dreams as a young girl. But I think I like the real woman better than the ideal. God made something beautiful out of her suffering, and I am the better for it.

I don’t want to fall into cliché here—“my sainted mother” and all that. She was real and human, feisty sometimes, sometimes manifesting more Louisa Alcott than Abraham Lincoln. And I don’t want to romanticize the beauty of her old gnarled hands. Too many sappy poems and Hallmark cards take on that role. They tend to nauseate rather than inspire.

But I’ll admit it. In memory, my mother’s hands are beautiful to me.

Now that I’m growing older, I find that it’s my hands that show my age more than any other physical aspect. I used to pride myself on my beautiful hands (somewhat like my 17-year-old mother). People sometimes complemented me. No one does that any more. The seven top signs of aging in hands are wrinkles, age or sun spots, dry skin, loose skin, veins, stained and brittle nails, and red peeling skin. The only thing on the list I don’t have (yet) is red peeling skin.

Look up “aging hands” on the internet and most of the sites address the topic of how to keep your hands looking young. Lots of good advice out there, most of it dedicated to postponing the inevitable.

I am faced with the decision to choose a mature perspective on aging hands and beauty. I’ll do what I can to protect my skin—gloves when washing dishes (which I never did as a younger woman), lotion, good grooming and so on. I probably won’t try any miracle pills or expensive dream creams. I’ll let myself—and my hands—grow older and not worry about how attractive, or not, they are.

And I’ll hope my daughter and granddaughters find some good ways to remember me on Mother’s Day.

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