Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Her Clever Hands
I woke this Mother’s Day – not to the worst news a mother can get – but to the sound of Fritz’s voice talking into the telephone, “Oh, no. . . . Oh, no. . . . Oh, no, ____ ” and he named a dear friend of ours, a stubborn and strong-minded woman whom we came to know during the years we drove her to dialysis after her husband died. We still drop by whenever we bike through her part of town. Fritz still gets after her if she doesn’t let him know when she goes into the hospital. And she kept me company, poking around the antique stores down along our riverfront, on the mopey first day of school when YoungSon started 1st grade. We’ve spent years now hearing each other's news, laughing together, giving each other a hard time.
Now Fritz opened the closet, getting ready in a hurry. I pushed back the covers, croaking, “Do you need me?”
“Yes.” Grave trouble had come to our friend, he told me in very few words, some of the worst news a mother can get.
I have no desire to make copy from her tragedy: our local papers are full enough of the police reports. And I played no part in it, except to dress quickly, rather bleary-eyed, and go with Fritz to her house.
I had been thinking the day before, while weeding and mowing to get the yard more presentable for Mother’s Day, about my mother’s mother. A bright, vibrant, endearingly exasperating woman. She was a potter, a sculptor, a painter. She sang and wrote short plays and organized things – more especially - organized people. Very generous. Very opinionated.
She said many foolish things during her life though she always meant to be wise. She disapproved of my dad because she thought his slight stutter was a sign of insanity and tried to bribe my mom with a trip to Europe if she’d only reconsider. She maintained that childbirth didn’t hurt one bit (after all, she’d never felt a minute of pain! My mom took me aside, “It’s been awhile for your grandma.”) Grandma would tell her grandchildren we could be anything at all if we worked hard enough (after all, look at her!) and then warn a grad-school-bound granddaughter against getting too much education because boys didn’t like that (after all, as a pretty seventeen-year-old in high school, she hadn’t needed fancy degrees to land my grandpa, who was a college man who became a chemist and later a professor at Princeton, as she retold and retold us.)
My brother tells what for him is the defining story of our grandmother: She’d planned – or caused to be planned – a big party for her and Grandpa’s 50th anniversary. We’d traveled cross-country for three days, cramped together in our family van to be there. Coming out to meet us in the driveway, she had carolled, “Here are the workers!” and before we even entered the house set us immediately to weeding and mowing, so that their beautiful yard would be ready for the party.
I remember that story, too. But I remember how really wonderful it was to get out of the car and to enter the green fragrance of her yard. I remember kneeling beside her, my knees next to her grass-stained knees, in the cool grass at the foot of some flowering tree. And I remember her hands next to mine with dirt under the fingernails and muddy and stained green.
These were the hands that divided clay and threw wedges down to pound out the air bubbles. Hands that held the clay to the center of the wheel and brought it to life, lifting it into vases and bowls and funny little pear-shaped people and birds called Cheer-ups. Hands over my hands, teaching me how to feel the shape in the clay.
These hands had braided my hair up from the nape of my neck to a straggly little tail left hanging over the middle of my forehead (because that’s the way I wanted it) when she got me ready for school one morning after the birth of one of my brothers.
Hands that held my hands all through one night when my parents were away for the weekend and I’d begun hallucinating with high fever: all night holding my hands in her hands to keep them from swelling and shrinking away from their right size.
Hands that smoothed down the skirt of the dress she’d helped make for my wedding and adjusted my veil.
When my other grandmother died and I was heartbroken and swollen with my second pregnancy, my mother’s mother took me by the hand and sat me down in front of the mirror and braided my hair. Her hands in my hair were the only words of comfort I still remember.
I watched her hands, holding her hand in my hand, the days before she died. Clever hands that were finally done with all their doing.
The only kind of wisdom I will ever likely attain is the continual re-acquaintance with my own varieties of foolishness. But I do know enough to sometimes be still and just offer my hand, to hold hands, hold a heavy head to my shoulder and let troubles shake themselves out in almost silent sobs.
When Fritz and I came home in the afternoon of Mother’s Day to our own house – where Saturday’s yardwork was pointing out even more dramatically what still needed to be done – I was surprised at how worn I felt. Like I'd been carrying something heavy all day. But it wasn't as if we’d done anything after the first few minutes of holding our friend’s hand, patting her back – nothing other than sitting there and keeping company while other members of her family gathered around. We were only there to be quiet, to keep the conversations calm and easy until shock wore off and whatever was next could emerge.
Walking up to our house late that afternoon I tried to think what I could pull together for dinner – no time now for all my planned culinary involvements – but with my hand on the door, my nose told me there was no need. My Eldest had looked in the fridge and stirred up some homemade broccoli soup and hot spiced applesauce. Middlest had baked cornbread and there was a deep dark aroma of double moist, double chocolate cake. YoungSon had gathered flowers from the yard and now he came running up to hold my hand.
That night I lay thinking of my grandmother's hands brushing the hair back from my brow, softly and slowly, until I slept.