Mother Hands

“You have a mother’s hands,” My husband said to me when our son was a few weeks old. I was holding a whimpering newborn, cooing and shushing in his ear, while gently stroking his back in a clockwise motion.

“Do I?” I smiled, amused that I was now a mother. With mom hands.

When do you get mom hands? Do all women naturally have them, whether they are moms or not? Is it defined by a soft touch? By the slight, delicate scale of palms and fingers in comparison to a man’s hands? Some hands are petite, some fine, some meatier and soft, some large. I think about my mother’s and grandmothers’ hands. What memories I have of their hands and the work they do. It seems their hands are always busy. The stories of my mother and grandmother’s can be told through their hands.

As a small child I remember my mother’s warm hands on my back, moving in circular motions as she helped lull me to sleep. My Nene, Turkish grandmother, scratching my back when I was itchy. It felt so good. We both have sensitive skin, so she knew just where to scratch. My American grandmother, Grandma, knitting slippers. Turning the work to start at the sides after finishing the thick sole. We loved those slippers. My mother, sister, and I got a new pair every Christmas and by the following year had worn holes in the toes. Grandma adorned them with puffballs for the kids and crocheted flowers for my mom’s. Nene knit slippers too. They were less playful, more elegant. As I got older I started wearing those more.

Now that I think of it, a lot of my memories of the family women involve their hands. My mother’s hands are beautiful. She has long slender fingers and perfectly formed nails. They look like she has a permanent manicure. I remember Christmas and how her hands balled up the sugar cookie dough, rolled it out on the counter, and carefully cut out shapes. I remember my sister’s small clumsy hands accidentally ripping off Rudolph’s leg and mine fighting to cut out as many angels as possible—four little kid hands not yet coordinated enough to work swiftly and accurately like my mother did.

When I was 14, we went to Cyprus with my grandparents. I remember my Nene’s hands mixing the feta cheese and parsley, and then showing us how to fill and roll the filo dough tightly. My sister and I had a lot of do-overs, and some of ours still burst in the fryer. My Nene’s hands are also slender, but bonier. Her palms are longer, not wide like my mother’s. The fingers are so thin they seem frail, but she uses them deftly to whip up a batch of dolma, every piece perfectly rolled. My sister has Nene’s hands. She is a physician’s assistant and I can imagine her meticulously suturing an open wound.

As an adult I remember both my grandmother’s teaching me to knit. Grandma’s now-ancient hands, with translucent skin, slowly demonstrating a stitch. As the years pass she forgets how to do these things. Once almost a reflex, now a struggle. I gaze at her hands. These hands raised five children and traveled the world. Now I watch them gracefully turn the pages of her mystery novel. She raises a hand to touch my face softly when we say goodbye, her sweet smile and warm touch lingering on my mind. She does the same thing to my son and he likes to clasp her hand to his face for just a moment longer. Her hands are small and I think they are so cute.

I remember Nene’s now thinner hands knitting a sweater for my son. She is still faster than I am, but now makes mistakes. She gets frustrated at having to rip out rows and restart. I watch, amazed, listening to the clacking of the needles that sound like a room of 1960s secretaries clicking away on typewriters. Her hands still show the delicate form of their youth but age spots sprinkle the surface and veins bulge through her skin.

My mother’s hands are more wrinkled now, and the once-perfect nails are now ridged. She complains that they aren’t beautiful anymore, but I say they’re just well-used. I like the way she cups my son’s face in her hands and leans in to his face. He has such a big grin on his face. She looks at my hands and says, “That’s what my hands used to look like.”

What memories will my son have of my hands? Will he remember how I touch his face? Do I touch his face like my mother touched mine? Will he remember me putting his bed together, contorted into an odd position to hold the head and sideboards together and using an Allen wrench to tighten the connector? Will he remember me stooping in the garden, bringing yet another giant zucchini to him? Will I become the adept knitter my grandmothers were, needles clicking away while rows of hat or sweater emerge? We will bake cookies together; will he remember frosting-covered fingers? My hands are the combination of all the mother hands in my life. Activities I learned from one and tendencies I inherited from another.

My hands are no longer the soft twenty-something hands I remember of myself. The tendons are more prominent and the skin is thinner. The nails are ridged and I have to buff them smooth. The nails chip a bit easier. When I look at them I see the memory of my mother’s hands from when I was a child. Now it’s my turn to create stories with my hands.

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