38: My Mother’s Hands

38: My Mother’s Hands

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

My Mother’s Hands

Gratitude is an art of painting an adversity into a lovely picture.

~Kak Sri

Many years ago, while my son David and I were taking a bus to visit my parents, we sat across from two passengers who were undoubtedly mother and daughter. They each carried a guitar case and chattered excitedly. As they rose for their approaching stop, the younger woman grasped the older one to steady her against the lurch of the bus. When their fingers intertwined I noticed they had the same hands, identical in shape, length, and even similar, subtle callouses from decades of plucking guitar strings.

I envied the obvious closeness they shared, wishing that I had that kind of relationship with my own mother. Apart from our eye color and build, she and I had very little in common and had never bonded over mutual interests.

My parents immigrated to Canada after World War II, arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs, three small sons, and the few possessions they could carry on board the ship that brought them here. I was born shortly after.

Mama and Papa were extremely strict, impatient, and distant. My mother also had some severe mental issues that prevented her from being the loving, demonstrative parent I yearned for. Our home was usually filled with turmoil, and laughter was rare.

My parents struggled to provide bare necessities, squirreling away every extra penny to eventually buy their own home. Aside from dealing with language barriers, Mama was terribly antisocial. She preferred an environment that demanded little human contact, so, from the time I was eight, she spent almost every weekday scrubbing floors, washing windows, dusting, ironing and cleaning for others.

Evenings after work, she did more of the same at home, adding cooking and laundry to the list. What little free time she had was spent sewing, knitting, or crocheting—something that, to her disappointment, I could never master when she tried to teach me. I preferred to slip into the imaginary world of books to escape the dreary atmosphere I grew up in.

That afternoon, when we finally got to my parents’ house, my father took David out to splash around in the wading pool they kept for him. I stayed inside with my mother. I offered to make tea and was relieved when she accepted. It gave me time to gauge her mood from the kitchen. I could never be sure if she was going to be pleasantly warm or cold and tight-lipped.

As the tea steeped, I observed her. She seemed calm, happily working on her latest knitting project. When I handed her the mug, she glanced up with a rare smile and I relaxed.

I watched her quietly for a few moments while she concentrated on a complicated series of stitches. Trying not to stare, I studied her hands. They looked nothing like my smooth, carefully manicured ones. Her nails were cut short, the fingers twisted, rough-skinned and knotted from years of hard work.

“Are you hungry?” she asked in her heavy German accent as she put her needles aside and sipped her tea. “You want I make you sumptink?”

“No thanks, Mama,” I declined politely. Now that my parents were retired, their freezer and pantry bulged with food for the times their children visited.

I reached over to admire the sweater she was making. The intricate pattern was emerging, each stitch tight, precise and perfect. “This is beautiful,” I told her softly.

“Tanks,” she murmured, then proceeded to tell me how she’d seen the design on a vest a woman was wearing at the supermarket that morning, and couldn’t wait to get home to duplicate it.

Her face became animated as she spoke, the way it always did when she was excited about her latest creation, even if it was a simple doily. Normally I would lose interest, but that day I listened intently.

Eventually, like all conversations do, the topic changed. Before I knew it, my mother began to reminisce about her childhood in Germany, her love of school, and how disappointed she was to abandon her studies in the sixth grade when her father decreed she had enough “book learning.” He needed her to help out full-time in the family butcher shop and bakery, shattering her dream of becoming a nurse. I heard the bitterness in her voice before she went on to discuss the war’s impact on her life.

It was then that she nervously resumed her knitting, avoiding further eye contact. Her voice became agitated when she related how her father forced all his daughters to smuggle items to the enemy that could have resulted in immediate execution if they were caught.

Mama recounted the many times she narrowly escaped death herself, naming friends and family she lost, including her own mother who died in her arms from a shrapnel wound infection. The hair on my arms rose as she narrated how she and Papa escaped from Germany, and how close they came to being caught and shot.

It was the longest my mother ever talked to me. As the memories flooded her mind and slipped from her lips, I recognized the familiar anxiety that usually set off one of her emotional outbursts. I immediately changed the subject.

“Why didn’t you go back to school here in Canada and study to be a nurse? You would have been a good one,” I added.

“Four babies, no money,” she said in her fractured English. “I worked so you all could finish school—get nice, easy jobs.”

My father and son came into the house then, and the conversation ended. My mother’s experiences, however, remained in my thoughts as I reassessed my many childhood resentments.

The birthdays and Christmases without gifts became insignificant. The embarrassingly shabby rented house of my youth suddenly became a haven now that I was aware of my mother’s sacrifices to help provide a better permanent home, food and education. Hated handmade clothes that were always fashioned to “grow into” seemed prettier in retrospect. And most importantly, the “crazy woman” everyone teased me about when she succumbed to one of her spirals of erratic behavior became a heroine and survivor in my eyes.

As I looked at her knotted, wrinkled hands, I realized that, though I’d had a difficult childhood, this woman who had always been both a stranger and parent to me had suffered an entire lifetime of loss and grim bleakness.

When I left that day, Mama actually leaned into my goodbye hug instead of simply tolerating it with her stiff unyielding body. For a brief moment, I experienced the mother-daughter bond I’d always craved. When we pulled apart, I raised her work worn hands to my lips, kissed them and whispered “thank you” into her ear. Her eyes softened, and then grew expressionless again as she returned to that impenetrable safety bubble she’d grown like a skin around herself.

We would continue to have our ups and downs for years to come, eventually becoming completely estranged as her illness progressed and her defensive hostility escalated. That day, however, I felt nothing but gratitude for the woman who spent her entire adult life ensuring that none of her children would ever have her gnarled and roughened hands.

~Marya Morin

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