It appears to be my earliest childhood memory. I don’t recall the bus ride to see Santa Claus at Stuttafords, or the doll I wanted from Lilliputs – those are little family legends that have only become real in my mind because they were spoken about so often through the years.
My first real memory – my very own memory – is of sitting on my bed and watching my Mother’s hands working a small white sock onto a chubby foot. The vision is so clear I can almost feel her touch and hear the voice that was talking me through her actions.
Her fingers were long and slender and tipped with the most beautiful nails; hard, well shaped nails, always perfectly red and perfectly polished. We discovered early, she and I, that running those nails across my back gently would calm me to the point of sleep. That never changed, and even as an adult I would visit her and say, “Tickle my back, Mom.” And I’d be transported back to when my Mother’s hands could soften the world.
They worked, those hands, from when she was 17; and I was always in awe of how quickly her fingers could rush across a typewriter – and later a keyboard – and never have to go back to correct anything. Just as she always managed to find the right words to comfort a crying child, the right letters flew from beneath those red nails and formed sentences that paid for school uniforms and places to live.
I loved it when she came to our school to collect us. She was a mother to be proud of, so beautiful and young. I’d reach up and take one of those hands, with the beautiful red nails, and hope everyone could tell that she was my Mom. She raised three of us who felt that way. When the youngest of us was called too soon, I witnessed my Mother’s hand touch the Holy Water on the shiny coffin and make the sign of the Cross for her boy. Her nails, perfectly painted, shook visibly as she bade her son farewell with the saddest touch a Mother would ever have to make . . .
Years later, a stroke took the use of her right hand for a while and – as if in defiance of the handicap – she often forgot it was there. She wrote me a letter later that year, using her left hand. I have yet to read a more beautiful note. If I was offered a signed letter from Nelson Mandela or even the Dead Sea Scrolls for the few short words my Mother’s left hand crafted on that card, I wouldn’t trade. It must have taken hours for her to write . . . that she was proud of me.
She never gave up, my Mom. She worked until that right hand was hers again and she could paint her nails once more. She was worn, but never beaten.
It has been some time since she left. I like to think that my brother was there, to take one of those beautiful hands in his own and lead her to a world without pain. In the joy of being together again, he probably didn’t notice that hand he held was blue, covered in bruises from too long a stay in a hospital bed and a heart that was forced to finally give up.
As I watched in such fear and sadness the life that had given me mine slip slowly from her, I looked at those hands. The many years of folding them in prayer for her own parents, her siblings, her children and others was etched on the outside of them now, in frail blue skin. I took her hand in mine, the softness of it so sweet against my palm, and tried to ignore the tubes and needles that defaced the beauty. I kissed her forehead and said goodbye, knowing that I couldn’t watch her leaving anymore. I held her hand one last time, then slowly walked away.
This morning, I watched my own hands tying my shoelace. Mine are not elegant, nor do I have the beautiful polished nails she had. I have few of the keyboard skills she had, and I will never change a child’s world by taking her hand in the schoolyard. But folded in my heart, in prayer and in praise, my Mother’s hands – always so quick to comfort and uplift – will live forever.