My mother’s hands are sinewy and sturdy. In church on Sundays I used to trace the raised veins running across the backs of her hands, pressing them down with my chubby fingers and watching them pop back up in wonder while the pastor talked about God’s will. It gave me the same feeling I got when I stamped down the mole tunnels that pushed up ridges of turf in the front lawn like a wrinkled carpet. I would press the soft dirt back down into the cavity of the tunnel, delighted by the feel of the ground squishing softly beneath my feet, secretly hoping the mole would come back and raise more mounds for me to smooth.
My mother’s hands are soft and cool and fragrant from the lotion she rubs into her palms and over her cuticles. When I close my eyes I can feel them, cool against the hot skin of my back, or smoothing my hair, or cupping my face. She keeps her nails trimmed back, rarely polished. These hands, they aren’t dainty. They know about hard work. And they know about long nights clasped together, begging God to show up, to guide, to comfort, to intervene. They know about fighting for what is right and about holding on to what is true. They know about the pain of letting go and the pain of holding on too tightly.
My mother’s hands are large for a woman’s – broad knuckles and sturdy fingers. They are my grandfather’s hands and maybe the hands of his father before him. My grandfather worked on the railroad for forty long years. The skin on his hands is tough and leathery like an old baseball glove. His fingers are so thick, when he takes off his wedding ring the band is wide enough to pass a quarter straight through it. My grandfather’s hands can never find a way to be still, even after years of retirement. These strong hands with their indomitable German work ethic have sacrificed every day to provide for his family since he was still a boy himself.
My hands are not like my mother’s and my grandfather’s. They are not like my grandmother’s or my father’s or my sisters’ or my brother’s. They are something entirely their own. An unfathomable combination of genetics and complex conditions in utero that resulted in the inexplicable production of these hands – unlike anyone else’s in my family, or likely anyone else’s on the planet. (My high school biology teacher was tickled by the discovery when we were studying the unit on genetics. “Do you know that if you marry a man with a similar condition there is a 1 in 4 chance that your children could be born without any fingers at all?” he asked, delighted.)
My hands are about the size of your average nine-year-old’s. My left hand middle and ring fingers are slightly webbed and bent rather dramatically towards each other so that they are always touching. (This phenomenon being the reason that I wear my wedding bands on my right hand). My right thumb joint is locked so that when I spread my fingers, instead of creating a backwards “L” with my forefinger it creates a very upright check mark. And the absence of a necessary tendon in my right index finger required the surgical addition of a screw when I was sixteen to keep my top joint from bending the wrong way.
“You have such small hands!” people say when they have occasion to notice them. Yes, they are small, but they are strong too! I want to say. My fingers are short and thick and crooked and I may never be able to throw a football or hold a bowling ball properly, but maybe these hands were made for something else. Maybe small hands can do big things!
I don’t have my mother’s hands, the hands her father passed down to her. But I hope I have inherited some of their virtues anyway. I hope my hands are gentle warrior’s hands like my mother’s, and strong and hard-working like my grandfather’s. I hope they are nimble and elegant like my grandmother’s. And I hope they are affectionate and generous like my father’s. I hope they are tender and compassionate like my sister Maggi’s and confident and creative like my sister Anni’s. I hope they are resilient like my brother Joshua’s and I hope they are as faithful like my husband Jonathan’s.
There is pain and there is beauty in the smallness – the pain and beauty of being confronted with my own fragility. Being forced to accept that I just can’t hold onto every worry, every responsibility, every disappointment and every failure, even when I try. And the realization that I was never meant to. My hands simply aren’t big enough. But there is another beauty too. Such small hands are easy to fill up– with love, with grace, and with brilliant and unbridled hope.
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
from “somewhere I have never traveled, gladly beyond”