“Jeannie’s got strong hands,” Randy said. He glanced at my mother’s unshakeable clamp on my wrist while she and I strolled the halls of Arden Courts. Randy was the son of another resident who lived in the same memory care home.
“One day, I helped her outside because she kept pushin’ on the door. She had an amazing grip on my hands.” Randy grinned while he gazed at his fingers and turned over his palms.
I too gawked at Randy’s hands. They were sturdy. They had been built for football.
My Italian mother’s hands had been built for something else.
“I know what you mean.” I cringed and disengaged my twisted fingers from Mom’s hands. “Her hands are her superhero power.”
My mother’s hands had always held my imagination sway. She was a magician with her biscotti and nutroll as her fingers flew across the mixing bowl or dough to cut and roll or press and dust. Mom demonstrated a sleight of hand on par with Houdini in turning flour, sugar, and egg into memories I could not live without.
Her fingers were longer than mine. I verified that fact on numerous occasions. And often, I used that excuse when my pastas and pastries didn’t measure up to hers. In truth, Mom spent a lifetime perfecting her feats, thus qualifying them as superhuman.
My mother’s superhero power did not mean she could close off a teenage mouth with a force field. She was not a shapeshifter unless you counted her six pregnancies. Nor did she move at great speeds unless she was caught in the rain after her hair appointment.
No, Mom’s superhero power had always been in her hands.
When she spanked us, or worse, wielded the wooden spoon. When she circled mistakes on our homework. When she hemmed or altered suit pants or communion dresses. When she sprinkled water and ironed over my father’s work shirts. When she dusted or mopped or rubbed Pledge on her coffee tables to shine the furniture. When she neatly penned the names of every person on her Christmas card list— and it was a long list.
And, given her ancestry, when she spoke or sang.
Long ago, Mom instituted “the death grip” as we orbited the corridors of her care home. She owned a walker, and following a fall or seizure, her therapist often put that walker into practice. Mom no sooner wheeled it front of her, wandered off, and clapped a hand on to the nearest set of arms or the handles of someone else’s wheelchair as a counterbalance to her toddling self.
“Good luck with her hands,” Randy joked as we all parted ways.
I lowered Mom onto a green wrought iron bench and plopped down at her side.
She reached for my hand, rubbed the soft hairs on my arm, and refused to release me to the outside world.
All of Mom’s actions were tied up in her hands. When she avoided the mumbling resident by pushing her away. When she squeezed my hand while I combed her hair because squeezing was her means of communicating frustration. When she pinched at clothes dotted with sequins or cookies spritzed with colored sugar.
Even my mother’s baby doll was not free of her grasp. I often sought out Baby Doll to replace my hands when my fingers cramped from Mom’s crush.
For countless years, Mom used her hands to change the world through baking Italian Christmas cookies and caressing the faces of grandchildren. She held on to those she loved as life tossed her around few curves and now, she clutched the hands of those who cared for her or could maneuver her in and out of the sun’s rays.
When Mom finally lets go, she will liberate what she has prized for many decades—her power to hold on to whatever life has thrown at her, including a sometimes intransigent daughter, and still cling to love.