Mamma’s hands — they are beautiful
To my mother, Dorothy Alves Rodgers, and all those women who have ever looked at their hands (or any other body part) and thought it “less”: You are so much MORE than you have ever seen, but we have. We do. And we recognize and admire and love, just as you are.
Thank you, with all our love.
Sports trainers talk about “muscle” memory — that after a certain number of repeated stresses, the procedural memory in the brain recalls how to move smoothly and powerfully to accomplish a physical goal. They point out that sometimes years after an athlete stops training, the muscles still know what they need to do. They need conditioning, greater oxygenation.
But they remember.
I think muscles remember other things, too. A pianist or cellist can sit down and perform a piece years after it was mastered or last performed, a few errors here or there, but it is recognizably the composition, complete with all the emotion and color of the original art. That memory of loving touch lies in the muscles and tendons of the hands and fingers, in the connection between them and the emotional centers of the heart and brain.
It’s been six decades and my back still recalls the thousands of gentle circles my mother drew there to soothe my pain-filled respiratory muscles as she tried everything possible to ease my childhood asthma attacks.
When I was little, there wasn’t much that could be done for a severe asthma attack. Each breath an overwhelming struggle and completely exhausted by the effort required to exhale, I would be a limp, sweaty bag of bones, and she would hold me in her lap, humming old lullabies and folk songs under her breath, while she traced those circles on my back. For hours at a time.
When the asthma would worsen and I could no longer speak to beg her not to take me to the hospital, she’d bundle me in a blanket, leave my father to watch over my little brother, and she’d drive hell for leather down deserted San Pedro Avenue to Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital in downtown San Antonio. Eventually the nurses and doctors would leave my hospital bedside, I would turn on my side gripping the oxygen mask, and she would sit on the side of my bed, rubbing. Constantly rubbing.
Now at 89 her hands are bent, the knuckles twisted with arthritis, so weakened it is hard for her to answer an email or hold a beloved paintbrush. She hates her hands. She always has.
“Your father had such beautiful hands, long tapering fingers. Bill has his hands,” she’ll say, “But mine have always been ugly. Even when I was young.”
That wasn’t true. When she was young, she was tall and slender with a cloud of dark hair and mesmerizing green eyes, and her hands were graceful, counterpoints with her lovely face and shapely mile-long legs in her acting career.
She’s never seen what I see in her hands. The skilled fingers capable of transforming bolts of golden velvet, satins and rhinestones into a stunning coronation gown for me, complete with a headdress like Nefertiti’s, the gown and train evoking circus big-cat tamers. The way she later crafted a fantasy wedding gown for me of antique and hand-tatted lace. Or the way she made designer-quality dresses from exquisite fabrics, with great talent and patience, to stretch a tight budget.
I see the fingers that stayed up all night, typing the final report for my award-winning seventh-grade science fair entry. After a 16-hour day preparing taxes for clients and before another one (something she continued to do through this past spring’s tax season). The same hands that cooked countless meals for us, but also for friends and neighbors. And that always made room for others without somewhere to go on a holiday — like airmen in basic training at Lackland AFB. Or friends from Trinity University who couldn’t afford to go home. And all those years of rubbing my pain away.
My father did have lovely hands — long tapering fingers that could fly over a calculator, grip a baseball bat or hold a tennis racket at the precise angle to defeat an opponent. But for all his love and concern, he didn’t sit up with me all those nights, holding me in his lap and rubbing my back to try to comfort a desperately ill child. He ran alongside me when he taught me to ride a bicycle, but when I fell and skinned my knee, it was Mom whose hands cleaned and bandaged it, and then sent me back out to succeed.
What makes a hand beautiful?
Leonardo da Vinci did numerous studies of hands, many old ones, twisted and speckled with age spots, with prominent tendons. Marred by large bruises under the thinned skin. He found them compelling, more interesting than the plump and unused hands of the society women he painted to please his patrons.
A glance at my mother’s hands now and what I see are all those hours.
I tried to calculate the back rubs once — if she made, say, one revolution a second, that’s 60 in a minute, 3,600 in an hour. How long before her shoulder began to scream to stop? Her arm to beg to rest, her hand to cramp? And yet while I remember a few times when she’d turn me around on her lap, I never once — not a single time — remember when she stopped rubbing my back before I was ready. And how many asthma attacks? Far too many to count.
I have never found beauty in the flawless — it’s always seemed too unreal. I prefer my beauty with a few scars, evidence of the effort involved in getting there. To me, that’s what beauty is — it’s something attained. Something one eventually achieves, if one works hard enough. It has little or nothing to do with smoothness and perfection. I can appreciate the untouched flawlessness of a baby’s skin, but given the fact that the baby hasn’t really lived, it seems unearned.
No, the most beautiful hands I know are my mother’s. They are twisted and bent, and give her great pain. But they have created such beauty, given so much comfort. How could they be less than beautiful?
Debbie Alves moved from San Antonio to Washington, D.C. 25 years ago to earn a master’s in international relations and international economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), before working on projects primarily in the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan and southern Africa, and the Arabian Gulf region. She can be reached at Debbie.AlvesDC@gmail.com.