It began as just another ordinary day. I woke up, stretched and gently put my feet over the side of the bed. I did my exercises, 15 minutes designed to loosen my stiffened joints and reduce the now-familiar aches and pains. Then I padded to the bathroom in my bare feet to wash my face and brush my teeth before preparing breakfast. I turned on the light and caught my reflection in the vanity mirror. No surprise. I had grown accustomed to my aging face and the small changes that occurred frequently – a new wrinkle or dark spot – and I had made my peace and was comfortable with it. Reaching for the toothpaste and toothbrush I caught a quick glimpse of my hands. Startled, I looked at them again. What I saw was so surprising that I abandoned my usual routine and went to sit in my favorite armchair in the living room.
I examined my hands carefully, turning them over and then back again, as if seeing them for the first time. They were wrinkled, the knuckles and veins protruding, the skin almost translucent and loose. They were gnarled and ugly. They were old hands. They were my grandmother’s hands.
I barely knew my grandmother. Because our family was estranged I only saw her a few times and she died when I was very young. She lived in a furnished room in New York City that was always dark and I don’t know if she had any visitors. Her name was Florence, but they called her Flo and sometimes Flossie. She was a small and slender woman; her gray hair tied haphazardly in a bun at the back of her head. She dressed in loose-fitting house dresses and wore heavy black stockings and shoes. There was an air of melancholy about her and when she spoke, which was infrequently, it was very softly. But what I remember most about her were her hands. They seemed ancient. And they frightened me.
The one thing that seemed to give her pleasure was to crochet. Then, amazingly, Flo’s hands turned into graceful, beautiful appendages. Her long fingers moved the needle in and out of whatever fabric she was using, and intricate patterns in delicate colors appeared as if by magic. She hummed a tune I did not recognize and her face softened with a gentle smile. During those times I am sure she was in another world. Years later I would often find myself, unexpectedly, in antique shops that sold vintage linens, admiring the pillowcases and tablecloths crocheted lovingly by women long ago, discarded now by my contemporaries who had neither the time nor the desire to care for or display them.
I looked at my hands again, aware, only now, that for 71 years they had touched every day of my life and that my life was, literally, in my hands.
As a child my hands provided me with pleasure and protected me from harm. I would raise them to my face to defend myself when my mother had a violent outburst and I would eagerly grasp the outstretched hand of a kind adult who would lead me to a safe place. But I would raise my hand proudly in class when I knew the answer to a question. I loved to color and would grip the crayons in my little fingers so that I could make exactly the right kind of mark on the paper. And I developed my own style of handwriting; ornate with lots of curlicues and large circles dotting the i’s. Best of all, I learned how to grip my cello, holding the bow with my right hand and placing the fingers of my left hand just so on the strings so that I could make music!
As a teenager my hands could spin a baton and I proudly marched as a majorette. I could climb the ropes better than anyone on the gym team. I talked with my hands too; sometimes gesturing wildly when I got excited. I loved holding hands with my boyfriend when we took walks and shared our hopes and plans for the future. And there was nothing as romantic as slow dancing at the school prom, my hands gently wrapped around the back of his neck. At graduation, my tears dampened the diploma held with shaking hands that symbolized my transition to young womanhood and the beginning of independence.
As a college student and an English major my hands carried stacks of books and I learned to love the old library. I tried to imitate my more sophisticated classmates who sat in leather armchairs in the meeting rooms languidly smoking their cigarettes. I grasped one awkwardly between my fingers, inhaling, puffing and choking until finally giving up. It was the last time I ever smoked. I learned to type, my stubby fingers hitting the wrong keys more often than not. And my hands filed thousands of papers and hundreds of packages and boxes in a variety of part-time jobs that supplemented scholarship money that was never quite enough.
As a young wife (married when I was just 20), my hands tackled domestic chores: cooking, cleaning and decorating our first home and I proudly lit the Shabbat candles in the old candlesticks on the kitchen table. As a young teacher, those same hands graded hundreds of papers, angering, disappointing and sometimes elating my students. I learned the value of a pat on the back or even a hug, something that was allowed in those days, when someone in class needed encouragement or comfort. The hardest thing to do in those years though, was to watch my friends holding their newborn babies, and then to see the tears in their eyes as those little ones let go of their hands to walk alone for the first time. Harder still was to watch them push their parents gently away as they walked, babies no longer, to their first day of school.
As an adult and over the course of the years my hands have attempted and often accomplished many things. I learned to drive later than most of my friends. At first, I would grip the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles would turn white. Later, when my husband and I bought our first new car, a Pontiac Firebird convertible, I would fight with him to be the one behind the wheel, my hair flying in the wind, radio blaring.I learned to use the computer and continue to be amazed at the wonders technology allows me to see and do. I garden, loving the feel and smell of the fresh dirt and mulch, watching my flowers and herbs grow, my hands clutching the tools necessary to bring everything to life. I picked up my first camera in my late twenties and to this day can imagine few things more enjoyable than walking almost anywhere, lens ready to capture people, places and things that move me.
My hands have lovingly touched my pets and they have rewarded me in more ways than I can count.
I have distributed food at the Food bank, handed out flyers, knocked on doors and dialed phones for various good causes. And I have been mindful to extend a helping hand to friends and strangers. My hands, I hope, have been useful.
Today, I look at my hands, my grandmother’s hands, seeing and recalling 71 years. I would like to think that my life will always be in my hands, in my control. But I know that is not possible.
Instead, it is time for me to acknowledge and accept the fact that going forward, I will sometimes need a helping hand.
Just a few days ago, as I was struggling to carry several heavy packages up the path and stairs to my apartment, a young man I barely knew but lived a few doors away, stopped and asked me if I needed help. “I would be happy to carry them up for you”, he said kindly. “No thanks, I said with a smile. But I appreciate the offer”. He disappeared behind his door, and as I trudged slowly to mine I wondered why I had refused his gesture. Why was it so difficult to accept his helping hand?
And so I resolve to loosen my grip.
I will learn to trust my own hands but not expect them to do everything alone. I will learn to accept the kindness of strangers who offer a helping hand.
I will learn to feel comfortable asking for and receiving helping hands from friends.
I will learn to trust the skillful hands of doctors and other medical professionals who are there to care for me.
And, most of all, I will remember that always and ultimately, I am in God’s hands.