I think I always remember my mother’s hands first, those giant hands for which she never found gloves large enough to cover. They diced potatoes so fast I stood stunned watching her do it, never able to match her speed over my entire lifetime. Those big old hands that could have rendered me nearly headless with one blow were consistently gentle, wiping tears, mending sore knees or caressing heads. Her hands were herself, large and seemingly clumsy but delicately skilled and artistic.
Because she was conscious of their size, she took extra effort to make them look good. Without the money for expensive manicures, she made sure her nails were scrubbed, buffed and painted, and at an early age, she practiced on my baby hands while I sat at her knee listening to stories and hearing her sing songs.
When I got old enough, I took piano lessons so I could play as well as my talented mother, but never even came close to what she could accomplish. She was able to hear a song and pick out the melody, then she’d sit at the piano until she learned it. Her hands - those huge hands would swiftly move over the keyboard to add the chord structures with a gifted ear, creating her own arrangements. But the notes on a page of sheet music were a foreign language to her, and a few times when she was learning a new song, I’d proudly play it through for her. Mom became well known throughout our small town and helped raise funds to build a city park. She became the main accompanist, preferred over those who were musically trained and skilled, because her talent was God-given, and her hands seemed anointed. Her “by ear” repertoire was enormous.
It was my mother’s hand that I held every night as a toddler, lying in the crib pulled closely to her bed in the cramped bedroom. As long as my small hand lay in hers I wasn’t alone in the darkness. On nights when the need for sleep caused her to gently bat it away, I felt deserted and separated.
When she lay dying of the cancer which tortured her body, full of the medication that reduced her to near comatose, I remember filing her jagged nails made sharp from her feeble attempts to refine them. I smoothed her skin, humming some of the hymns she had played, and I remembered…. We’d come full circle.
On Mom’s last day, relatives came to say good-bye. They held her hand; they said comforting words. As she drifted deeper and deeper into that last sleep I held her hand. I felt the familiar gentle push and batting of her fingers. It was time to let go. And though I knew it was coming, I was still surprised by the sting of desertion and the sudden awareness of loneliness. Again I became a child losing the hold on my mother’s hand in the darkness.