My sister recently asked me if I would be able to recognize my children’s hands in a group of several. Would I be able to recognize hers? She had come from a yoga class where the teacher had centered the class around hands, and said she was intrigued by the questions. My first reaction was, “of course I would!”, but then I had to wonder…. this coming from the mom who proudly showed off her firstborn in the hospital nursery to a visitor, only to be corrected by the nursery nurse. I had the wrong baby.
Could I look at my hands so deeply that they almost seemed separate from my body and think about what they had done in my lifetime? Having never thought about this before, I became obsessed with my hands — the hands that have created, destroyed, cradled, protected and applauded their way through my life. My hands are my outward representation of my spirit and in their lined palms, they have held all that I’ve loved, lost, hated, feared, created and comforted.
My sister telling me she’d recognize my hands gave me a deep sense of
comfort. She said they were hardworking hands. She’s right. My hands have always felt more at home digging in the dirt than sitting in the manicurist’s chair.
I thought back to a few years ago and the volunteer work I did in Peru at a center for the elderly in one of the poorest districts of Lima. I wanted to find an activity that would single out the women in the group, because I wanted to get to know them on a more intimate level. The following week I set up a small manicure station, with hopes that a couple of the women would want to take part. Much to my surprise, almost all of them did, creating a bit of a frenzy at the small “station” I had set up. I had danced with these women, chatted with them in their homes, played games with them, done simple crafts with them, but my favorite, hands down (pun intended), were the manicures. There was intimacy in holding their hand, while painting their nails and like little girls, they were in awe of the process, as they watched intently, boldly pointing out when my little brush painted outside of the nail line.
These hands made my hands look pampered and delicate. THESE were working hands and just like Madge on the Palmolive commercial from the 70’s, I had all the waiting hands soaking in soapy water. I told them it was to soften the nail so I could cut them, but in reality it was to clean them. Again, these were working hands.
One of my favorites, Maria Rivera, waited patiently in line and finally took her spot as my last customer. Her hands needed the most work. Her fingers were bent with arthritis and her nails thick, dirty and terribly ignored. She had definite ideas how she wanted them to look — cut short, painted bright pink and made to look pretty.
“Bonita y rosada, por favor.”
I did my best to make them not only bright pink, but well manicured and far cleaner than what she started with. She seemed pleased. As I held her hand in mine and tried to file the nails down to a respectable length because they were far too hard to cut, I couldn’t help but think about what my sister had told me about hands. As I worked my way across the nail of each of her short, thick fingers, I thought about the history I had been told about her, specifically how her own son had tried to strangle her. Were these hands I was holding the same ones that pulled her own son’s hands off of her neck while trying to save her life? What else had these powerful hands done to protect the body that they were attached to? I wanted to sit back and hear all of her stories while holding her fight, her strength and her integrity in my own hands. These hands, that were her protectors, still honored her vanity and drew perfectly arched brows over sad brown eyes, and placed a gold hat that looked like a half-popped jiffy pop container on top of her neatly coiffed hair every morning before coming to the elder center.
I felt honored to share such intimacy with these women while working on their nails and making them pretty and pink. The task at hand was the manicure, but I felt like I gained far more than what I gave. The simple pleasure of being with these beautiful, hard-working women who had experienced so much hardship in their lives, while holding their hands and letting their energy mingle with my own, was truly a gift.
Besides the fact that the polish was old and sticky, the women insisted on sitting right next to me rather than across from me, making for an awkward angle. There was also the frustration of working amidst swarms of flies. I later discovered that on the other side of the wall we were sitting, was a garbage dump. Struggles aside, it became one of my most treasured memories of my time in Peru.
My own hands, the same that so often had been told to put it down, leave it alone and stop picking at it, followed the rest of myself into a nail salon for a manicure the day before my oldest son’s wedding a few years ago. After the nail tech brought out the third wrong shade of pale pink, I had to leave because I started crying. No, that’s not a typo, crying. When I got home, my other son asked me if I got my hands all fixed up (boy speak for manicure). I told him no, that I had to leave because I started crying. He gave me an understanding look, held the gaze for a few seconds, then responded,
“You’re not ready for him to get married, are you?”
“Not really. I keep forgetting that he’s not 12 years old.”
Clearly this was not about the wedding, but rather was about my having to face, full on, the passage of time, which felt a lot faster than was comfortable.
It’s easier for me to be more accepting of my stubby fingers with rough cuticles and often less than perfectly manicured nails when I think of what these hands have done for me. The small hands they’ve held while crossing the street; the plants they’ve placed with hope into the dirt and the weeds they’ve pulled out in frustration; the family dog that they held while he was being put to sleep and the tears they wiped away for so many days that followed; the babies they’ve held through long sleepless nights; the wedding papers they signed and the divorce papers that followed 20 years later and the countless stories they’ve typed. I love them in all of their flawed imperfection as they represent my history, my life and my spirit in full view. How can that not evoke a crazy sense of pride and ownership? Dirty nails and all?