There is an old English proverb that reads, “The eyes are the windows to the soul,” but I always have thought that hands are the introduction to the personality, the intricate weave of experiences and genetically bequeathed traits we receive from our parents. As a child, I was mesmerized by my father’s strong, hairy grease-streaked fingers that would tremble as he’d screw the cap off the oil tank in his Triumph, but would also very gingerly use his pinkies to transform our organized tangle of string from a witch’s broom back to a cat’s cradle. They always rested on the steering wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock as he drove, just as my mother’s would, never seemed to fumble. His mind’s eye was careful to make a sound judgement and he’d never slip when pushing a button: a strong, sure, able finger would push the right knob without hesitation after careful contemplation.
I heard speak of his own father’s mechanical capabilities, his trucking company, his service as the town of New Milford’s respected democratic first selectman, the genetic precursor to his own career in engineering.
My mother’s hands were strong and able, but gentle and pretty. On her left hand she wore her mother-in-law’s diamond wedding band, a ring now bestowed to my own daughter and tucked safely away. A symbol of elegance and welcome, that ring was a material example for the many ways my Grandmother enveloped my mother. I longed to know her as I looked at that ring, alas, she passed five years before my birth. She also wore a dainty Timex watch with an elasticized band that rested just below her prominent wrist bone. As the mother of five children, she had to keep careful track of what that watch read as she maneuvered her Pontiac station wagon around the town of Bristol Connecticut, steering it’s hulk from piano lessons, track practice, perhaps her afternoon of volunteering at the Bargain Box downtown, a second hand shop formed to benefit the Episcopal Church we attended every Sunday without fail.
I would stare at her sparsely decorated hands as they performed various tasks, her knuckles prominent, that of her pinky slightly extended while bent: bringing up the hem of one of my sister’s skirts that had grown too small for her but too long for me; pulling chicken off the bone to add to a casserole, removing one of the dozens of splinters that embedded itself in my feet, a painful byproduct of our summers spent on a wooden removable dock on Lake Waramaug.
If asked, I could pick her hands from hundreds of others, so it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that my own hands look like hers. The bones that connect my fingers to my wrist dance about under the thinning layers of skin just like hers did, and although my fingernails are nothing like hers, strong and long and feminine, my pinky knuckle also juts out when performing certain tasks. They are not entirely rough but smoothed out thanks to regular application of cream, and my children often remark “mom, your hands are warm and soft…”
I remember that warmth. My mom seemed to exude it from her body, inviting to a toddler who longed for the reconnection to that maternal love after performing a new stunt, dangerously inviting independence into our new lives.
Recently I noticed my mother’s ring finger being pinched by arthritis, a malady she pointed out to me as she sat opposite me in my own family car, she in the passenger seat and me with my hands on the wheel at precisely ten and two o’clock. It induced a pang low in my stomach, a twinge I have felt many times in my life: a psychosomatic pain that is introduced to my person when affected by another’s suffering. I have felt it as I saw an elderly woman struggling to get onto the bus unaided, my young nephew with his tongue stitched after cleft palate surgery, my own daughter having blood drawn from her tiny newborn vein, just south of her ring finger, a tiny capillary vessel of her life’s liquid tapped to measure her bilirubin. The sight of that sharp needle in her tiny, inexperienced hand and the sudden recognition that the world now had its own grip on my daughter, that she was no longer carefully and perfectly enveloped in my womb, had induced my first loss of consciousness. I fell to my knees as I attempted to comfort her, my own hands surgically taped into its own IV tube after a Caesarian, grasping for the gurney for support before my faded peripheral vision took over the whole of my eye.
Regardless of very personal associations, hands are universally symbolic in nature, but also practical. Horses are measured by them, but in Asian art, hands folded together are often a symbol of our dual natures, yin on one hand and yang on other other, joining together in harmony. The hands tenderly holding the heart on an Irish Claddagh ring symbolize friendship as well, as it does in a simple wave. Often attributed to the native American gesture in the woods – to show a hand without weapon and therefore a peaceful gesture. To offer one’s own hand could be construed as an offer to help, or more colossally, in marriage. A simple aid or an entire life is offered by the hand.
So it is in harmony that I offer my hand to my family and friends, but most symbolically to my own children. My son who will be 13 this fall no longer takes mine in public, but in the private confines of our own suburban home will compare the size of our hands with amusement: my hand is the same size as yours now, Mom! His hands tremble with sensory motor overload, much like my father’s, much like mine. He can construct a Lego creation with no effort at all if it weren’t for that pesky tremble that has seemed to travel the Adams rail line of congenital nuisances.
My nine year-old will still take my hand in all classes of company. Hers are topped by nail beds that have been chewed to the quick, evidence of a stressful school year during which she dug through social messes much too mature for her nine years of life experience. I am grateful she often slips her hand into mine, but the gesture is seldom enough for me to immediately recognize the difference in size and significance. I also observe with great amazement that that tiny dimpled grasp that once sent me swooning during a routine blood test can now knit and purl better than I ever could, cartoons like a developing expert, and crafts gorgeous pieces of art out of anything from driftwood to tin cans.
My two year-old often demands to be entirely ensconced in my hands, not yet sure of her own while she tests the temperature of the waters of a new world. Her developing awareness of those waters have in turn encouraged her to try out these tools at the end of her arms with greater refinement: as she clutches a crayon in a fist to scribble, as she struggles with a cereal spoon with a seeming palsy, spilling the milk en route to her pouting lips, but with surprising heartbreaking tenderness as she strokes my cheeks.
The hands of my children are revealing what’s to come, their strengths and weaknesses, their steps closer to the goal of independence, turning to the world with their own contributions rather than asking their mothers’ hands for help. My own aging hands, rough from more than 40 years of mud pies, spiking volleyballs, diaper changes, or more accurately the soap and water that now responsibly follow such tasks, starkly contrast my two year-old’s hands that still feature chubby dimples instead of knuckles, but with motherly love stroke the satin trim of Mine, her aptly named security blanket. I cradle her tonight as I watch my 9 year-old daughter slowly peel the carrots for hand pulled chicken casserole she is making with my mother at her lakeside cottage. She probably doesn’t realize that the knuckle of her pinky finger juts out just like the two previous digital generations have before her.
I look through the window, where my son takes a large mouth bass off the hook with perfection, regardless of the tremble that arrives with the gingerly task, capitalized by a gentle stroke of water he washes over its gills upon release. The tremble of his grasp is evident from a distance, but diminishes nothing of his ability.
These hands belong to my children who have found the tasks they like best, and whose heritage lay embedded in them. I feel a familiar catch in my throat of both pride and longing as I massage my own hands with the jar of Ponds cream that is perched on my mothers kitchen sink after having washed the dirt of the potato peels off of them and return to my toddler for a reassuring caress, hers and mine.