It was a highly charged assignment, only three words that were together so powerful ,and in equal part provocative and evocative. The theater improvisation instructor had asked us to come up with a life -sourced monologue that began with the following, “My Mother’s hands…”
There was a flood of images and sensations that immediately came to me with those three words.
I remember my Mom’s hands like I held them yesterday: long tapered fingers, immaculate nails, knuckles enlarged with arthritis and constant use ,skin smooth from assiduously applied lotions and creams …and above all, even on summer’s hottest days, hands that were, almost impossibly, cool to the touch.
She passed away ten years ago… but if I close my eyes I can imagine those cool, cool hands gently cupped about my face and if I continue keep my eyes closed too long, the sensation is strong and real enough to bring tears to them.
Her hands were always so busy: cooking, cleaning, mothering, knitting and sewing. My Mom referred to herself with great pride as a “needlewoman”. She sewed and knit for us and even for my Barbie doll, beautiful couture creations that I wish I had today (and wish I valued then more than the shoddy “store bought” versions I lusted after instead.)
In later years, she turned to fancy needlework, She did all manner of beautifully wrought work, ultimately falling in love with embroidering on thin cloth with fine denier silk thread. My Dad, an artist , would draw an outline of an image on the smooth silk cloth for her and she would slowly and meticulously bring it to life in a riot of vibrant color.
In her last years she became legally blind but even as her eyesight was failing, with the help of magnifiers and special lights, her hands would carefully move the thread over and under the stretched cloth canvas of her work.
When the time came that it fell to me to pack up, donate and discard my Mom’s possessions upon her death, it was, as these things are , emotional and exhausting but surprisingly to me, healing too, almost Zen.
As I was coming to the end of it, opening her bottom-most dresser drawer, I came across the very last canvas she had been working on, plastic rods still there as stretchers, silk still threaded onto the needle, as if one day she might be able to see, as if one day she might complete it. And in fact, complete it would have been if she hadn’t ripped out to re-do the stitches on the green heron’s legs and feet dozens, maybe hundreds of time because, increasingly, they didn’t look sufficiently perfect to her. So when she died it was unfinished and I discovered it carefully wrapped in tissue, lying in a drawer.
Deciding it was too beautiful to languish hidden away, I had it framed: tools, needle, unfinished canvas and all. It is one of my most treasured possessions and when I show it to people who have come over for the first time I am not only proud of my Mom’s work, I tell guests too about the lessons it teaches me about how things don’t have to be finished to be beautiful and how the quest for perfection can stand in the way of doing what we hope to do.
Mostly though, I just like to look at it. As a friend reminded me today, every daughter’s story begins with her Mother’s story. My Mom embroidered her story into my heart. Sometimes that story feels like the stab of a sharp, fine needle but more often than not , it evokes the incredibly soft feeling of a skein of silk.
Her story, like the green heron, was never finished in my heart … as mine won’t be in my daughter’s. And so it goes. Which I think might be just as it ought to be.