My Mother's Hands
The older I become, the more I become my mother. I am a newer upgraded model of the original. Life made my mother and I different, but we are very much the same woman, existing in different eras, ages and lives. I realize more and more, we are enveloped in the same skin.
Mom and Daddy, 1951
As the only child of adoring parents my mother was pampered and spoiled. As she matured, there was always a man in the wings protecting her, beginning with her papa to her besmitten Barclays Bank boss in 1929, to my father. The men in her life solved her problems, pushed her forward into the woman she became. There was never a hardship my mother suffered that someone else couldn’t solve for her, until my father’s death. Then, there were no solutions. Her greatest hardships ruled her life, and mine.
As with all privileged women of the fifties, my mother spoiled her hands. She was a glamorous woman of the forties and beyond. My mother's hands were soft and creamy. She grew up in the era of wearing gloves for every special occasion, protecting one’s hands from cold, hardship and aging. She used her hands in many of the same ways as I: laundry, cleaning, daily chores, chopping vegetables, cooking, writing shopping lists and thank-you notes. My list includes writing in my journals, creating stories and books, cracking nuts, grating oranges for my cranberry-orange-apple-nut relish and gardening.
As for gardening, my mother and I differ. My mother was never a woman who dug, planted or trimmed. I love to get my hands in the soil, shaping the mounds of dirt around this or that new addition to our garden. I don’t wear gloves. Instead, I follow my dear friend Jean’s advice, which was her mother’s advice, “Before gardening, always grasp a dry bar of soap and push the soap under your fingernails. It will block the dirt from collecting under your nails.” This tried and true recipe is very efficient for gardening-without-gloves.
I wonder over my mother’s perfectly, beautifully manicured nails, polished meticulously in a deep shade of red. Her’s was the era of Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Lucille Ball. I think even Joan Meadows in the Honeymooners wore nail polish. Mine is the era of coping with tattoos, piercings and Lady Gaga. Women are all enrolled in the same academy of etiquette, no matter the era.
During times of stress I have succumbed to my secret vice of nail biting. My sister was far worse. She was a cuticle chewer. I managed to overcome this habit at our Oregon home, Bliss Hill, where stress is nonexistent. I grew fingernails. They became strong and long enough for me to file and paint with nail strengtheners. Long enough for a manicure.
On our return from Oregon I painted my fingernails for the first time in forty years. I was astonished. Why did I paint my nails in this vibrant, sexy, sophisticated, glamorous very-bright-red color? The answer is too obvious to ignore. It is my mother’s color, Cherries in The Snow. It is the same color which now adorned my finger tips. I look at my hands and realize I am slipping into my mother’s skin.
Most mornings, my mother’s face greets me in the mirror. Her reflection instantaneously floats into my brain and vision, from the past to the present. I hear my mother’s voice, “Janie, do I look old?” I always answered, “No, Mom. You look beautiful.” Those were the same words I gave to her on her deathbed. They were as true then as they were so many years earlier, memorialized in an old photograph we both loved. She would smile in delight, remembering that photograph, an image she held in her heart, which blossomed from her youth. Just as I hold an image in my heart of myself, blossoming from my youth. As we all do.
I remember sitting in our very elegant suite in a beautiful hotel overlooking the hills of Napa Sonoma, in 1982. The hillside was wreathed in ripening grapes. Rows and rows of frames supporting a world of hillside vines, a quilt on the side of a mountain, red, violet, green, gold.
As we poured our wine into crystal flutes I poured my heart out to my mother, telling her the stories of my marriage which she already knew. Then, I sat at our suite desk and painted my fingernails Cherries in the Snow red. I was on vacation from my life. I could paint my fingernails bright red because the color wouldn’t chip. I had no chores to perform. I was on vacation.
Yesterday, I admired my hands, my fingers, which were graced in Cherries in The Snow polish, which made all my rings glow more brightly. Just as my mother’s hands had glowed, with the rings of her life. I polish my nails, I wear my mother’s rings, and morph into her skin. I do not wear her heart or soul.
My mother’s hands, and nails, limit me. I must constantly repair the chips on my fingertips, damaged from washing dishes, cracking nuts for our jungle family, chopping garlic, onions, and tenderizing meat, working on my laptop to giving Tim head rubs.
I give in to my love of fingernail chewing by carefully peeling off all the Cherries in the Snow nail polish from each finger tip. The color, the polish, doesn’t suit me.
* * *
My mother’s hands wink at me in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping. The muse, once again, is nudging me. In my dream, my mother’s diamond ring catches the light. Stories arise from the past, to the now, to the future. I carefully get out of bed so as not to awaken my sweetheart, gently snoring beside me.
I turn on the light in the living room and write this story and realize: I am slipping into my own skin. I have finally become myself, with my own hands, my mother’s past, and my future to unfold.
My Christening Photo, 1949