COLD HANDS, WARM HEART

COLD HANDS, WARM HEART

From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Cold Hands, Warm Heart

God did not create two classes of children or human beings—only one.

Marian Wright Edelman

Lottie slowly shuffled into the multipurpose room of the nursing home where I conducted weekly group therapy sessions for women having trouble adjusting to their new residence. Lottie looked especially down today, and I wondered whether she was feeling uncomfortable after having shared some very personal experiences the previous week. “Airing one’s dirty laundry” was considered taboo in her generation, perhaps even more so in her particular culture.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she mumbled, almost inaudibly. “My arthritis kept me up all night. And I’m so tired that I’ll probably nod off during group. Maybe I should just leave.”

“That’s okay, Lottie,” I responded reassuringly as I patted the empty chair next to me. “I saved you a seat right here, and I promise if you start snoring, I’ll give you a little nudge with my elbow.”

Everyone laughed . . . except Lottie. She didn’t even smile. Gosh, I thought, She really does seem depressed. This tall, matronly woman was almost fragile today. Her eyes pleaded for something I could not comprehend.

“Please join us,” I implored, patting the seat again.

Lottie hesitantly ventured across the room towards me, turned, and lowered herself cautiously into the chair. She let out a gasp of pain that made everyone wince.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie,” I said. “You really are having a rough time, aren’t you?”

She looked at me and raised her two dark gnarled hands for me to see. They were shaking. In fact, it seemed as if her whole body was almost trembling.

“My hands are soooo cold,” she whimpered like a little girl, “and they hurt soooo much.”

“Let me warm them up for you.” I scooted my chair even closer, took both of her hands in mine and laid them in my lap. To divert attention from her, I began talking to the other women in the group about how they had been doing this past week. I gently massaged one of Lottie’s hands, then the other. My instincts told me something was going on with her—something far more serious than arthritis and a sleepless night. I made a conscious decision not to ask her to disclose anything today. I would offer to spend some time alone with her after the group ended to make sure that she was okay.

My mind kept drifting back to what Lottie had previously shared. Several residents had been talking about recent visits from their children and grandchildren. Someone commented that they had never seen anyone visiting Lottie and asked if her relatives all lived out of town.

Mrs. Burton whispered, “I don’t think she has any kids.”

Lottie overheard her and responded, “Actually, I’ve had thousands of children in my lifetime.”

Everyone stopped talking and just stared at her, waiting for an explanation. Lottie continued, “I never married, but since I’d always loved children, I decided to become a teacher. Before I came here, I would occasionally run into a former student at church or the grocery store. They always recognized me and came over to chat. But now . . . well, probably no one even knows I’m here. Besides, they have their own lives and their own families to take care of.”

Mrs. Roberts asked about Lottie’s siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews . . . didn’t any of them live in Louisiana? Lottie paused, and then said she had lost touch with all her relatives. This undoubtedly made no sense to anyone in the room. Lottie was such a bright, interesting, sweet, caring woman. Surely, anybody would be thrilled to have her in their family and would want to keep in touch with her as often as possible.

I didn’t want to pressure her to reveal more than she was ready to, but I also wanted to provide an opportunity for her to process something painful if she felt the need to do so. “You’ve lost touch with your family?” I asked. “Is that something you’d like to talk about?”

Lottie swallowed, dropped her eyes, and said softly, “My mother died during childbirth, and I think my father somehow blamed me for it. I guess that’s why he gave me to his parents to raise. Then he was probably lonely, so he got married again pretty quickly. He and his new wife had a baby within a year, so I actually had a half-sister close to my age.

“Anyway, my grandparents weren’t thrilled about my being dumped on them and having another mouth to feed. I remember that even when I was little, I was so very good, never caused any problems and helped around the house as much as possible. I didn’t want to be a burden, but they always made me feel like one. Anyway, they both died of influenza the same month I turned thirteen.

“None of the relatives liked me much or wanted me, so my father had no choice but to take me in. I had seen his family occasionally over the years, but didn’t know them well. Of course, I understood why my stepmother resented having to live with another woman’s child, but I never knew why my sister hated me so much. And it’s sad, because we could have been such friends.”

After a long pause, Lottie went on. “I wanted them to be proud of me, so I studied diligently in order to be accepted into college. When my sister heard my plans, she suddenly announced that she wanted to attend the university, too. My father immediately told me to get ‘that college idea’ out of my head because tuition was expensive and he had already promised my sister that she could go instead of me. I was brokenhearted, but reluctantly started taking typing, shorthand and other business courses so I could at least work in an office instead of cleaning houses or being a nurse’s aide.

“Right before I graduated from high school, an army recruiter talked to the senior class about serving our country, then getting the GI bill—like how the government would pay for veterans to go to college and all. So the day I turned eighteen, I signed up. They sent me to Washington, D.C., where I did clerical work for four years.

“After my discharge, I returned home, found a part-time secretarial job, enrolled in classes and eventually earned my bachelor’s degree. My sister had changed her mind about college, so at the time I was the first black female to ever graduate from that university. Anyway, I ended up teaching ninth grade in an inner-city school for the next thirty-three years.

“And, in a nutshell, I finally gave up trying to have a relationship with my relatives. But that’s okay,” she added with a smile to convince everyone (including herself). “I had an endless supply of kids in my classes who needed all the TLC they could get.”

After Lottie had so openly discussed her past, I kept wondering what part of her story she kept concealed. She seemed so sad, and it felt like there was a major puzzle piece missing. Had she ever been in love? Did she lose her soul mate in the war and vow never to marry? Had she bounced back from a near-fatal illness?

I struggled to refocus on what the other residents in my group were saying. I glanced at everyone in the room, then over at Lottie. She had tears streaming down her face. “Oh, Lottie!” I gasped in surprise. “You must be hurting so much! Maybe we should get a doctor.”

“No,” she purred softly. “Actually, I’m much better now. In fact, I don’t remember when I’ve felt so good. Do you know that you have been holding and massaging my hands for almost an hour now?”

I stole a glimpse at my watch. “Gosh, I—I didn’t,” I confessed. “I was just . . . ”

“Thank you,” she interrupted me. “That was incredibly healing. Do you know that tomorrow is my eightieth birthday, and I’ve never once had anyone hold my hands like that?”

“Oh, Lottie, I’m so sorry,” I stammered, trying not to let my voice crack or my tears flow. How could anyone be so grateful over something so little? I hadn’t done anything! For one of the few times in my life, I was speechless.

“You’ve probably noticed that my eyes are light blue,” she suddenly interjected.

“I—I actually hadn’t,” I responded apologetically, really seeing them right then for the first time.

“Hmmmm,” Lottie crooned. “That’s one of the first things my people notice. You see, my mother was a white woman. In those days, interracial marriages were not welcome, nor were their biracial offspring. I was never accepted into either family because of that. Even though my skin is dark, complete strangers could take just one look at my blue eyes and know my past. It’s almost as though people tried to make me feel ashamed of it, ashamed of who I am.”

Lottie gazed into space. “When I was about eight or nine, I was hiding behind this fence and watching a white woman playing with her young daughter in a park. The child fell down and started crying. The mother raced over, scooped the little girl up in her arms, hugged her tightly and smothered her with kisses. I memorized that lady’s face. I’ve never seen a picture of my own mother, so from then on, throughout my whole life, every time I’ve been sad or scared, I just closed my eyes and imagined that lady. I pretended that she was my mother and that she was always there to comfort and protect me—just like she did with her daughter that day.”

The words I wanted to say did not come. Lottie smiled peacefully. “Just last night I was thinking that I’m almost eighty years old, and I’ve never known what it is like to be comforted when I’m hurting. And now I do. You didn’t even realize it, but you just gave me the best birthday gift I’ve ever had.”

My God, I hadn’t done anything!

“Oh, Lottie,” my quivering voice responded, “may I please give you a hug?” We both stood up. I don’t know if I held her or she held me, but it felt so good.

Behind me was a long line of other teary-eyed women, waiting to hug their new friend. I overheard Mrs. Burton whispering in the background again, this time planning a surprise birthday party . . . something with a “sisters” theme.

Karen Waldman

More stories from our partners