My mother has had hands for as long as I can remember.
This may seem like an obvious statement, but all throughout my childhood my mother emerged in bits and pieces. The way the color of her eyes changed, the hook of her nose, the way her voice thinned and eyes narrowed when the house wasn’t clean.
The house was never clean. Never clean enough.
But her hands have always been there. They are truly my mother’s hands, and belong to no one else.
My mother’s hands are a wonderfully mysterious contradiction to me. Like most things, they have two sides to them.
On the palm, they belong to the woman that is my mother, not wife, not daughter, not teacher, not friend. Mother, my mother. The skin, that is- it is impossibly soft and light and thin, like wind stretched delicately into a sheet of paper. The palm has been rounded and softened by the hair and breath of children. My mother’s hands always touch me by the palm, and that very palm, always exposed to me, is kind and warm, the veneer of the woman we know.
This is the woman who trained me to feel sick if I ever lied, the woman whose top knots are a thing of legend. The woman who claims she’s bad at cooking but makes unbelievable cerny kuba and red velvet cake and crusted mac and cheese, the woman who held my hair back as I retched after too much of red velvet cake and crusted mac and cheese. Her palms give me the woman who read me E.B. White and smelled fruit-flavored markers with me.
But the back of my mother’s hands is more interesting.
The back of my mother’s hands I know better than my own. Veined, knotted. The skin is smooth, always thin, stretching over like a filter between the air and my mother’s blood. It is the hand of a skeleton, the bone ridges painfully in thrown into relief, rivers of concealed veins strangled across them. Years and decades and a lifetime of cracking her knuckles as a nervous habit has left them knobby, knuckles infinitely prominent.
It is the hand of an older woman who has seen and felt pain, and it is only when I notice the back of my mother’s hands that I begin to patch together the purple bags around her eyes, the lines etched around her mouth that will someday be carved into my own, the way she cracks her neck in pain as she gets up in the morning, the way she looks at herself in the mirror.
The back of her hands is the woman who works in a job she hates with people she loves, is the woman who snaps at me when I leave food out or dishes unwashed, is the woman who drinks her coffee in the morning in total and complete silence. It is the woman who watches endless movies at 2 am because she cannot has not will not sleep even though she needs it desperately.
When my mother cries, I stare at the back of her hands, at where the skin is scrunched and where it is not, because to me it is like a topical map of the life she led before, the life I have pieced together from other’s memories. Before my brother, before me, before the house, before her husband.
I suspect she has had old hands- an old soul- but she has told me this is not true, not since she was a little girl, the core of an affair, a divorce, the core of a small, small girl who never felt wanted in a family that knew and held in their hearts the circumstances of her birth.
I can see the skin wrinkling as she clenches her fists.