By Lynne Griffin
Without photographs I would not be able to describe my mother’s youthful hands, the length of her fingers, the contours of her nails. Her skin taut and smooth. Yet in memory the emotions her hands evoke in me are plentiful.
My mother was glamorous when she held a glass of wine at one of the parties she organized for my father’s business associates from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. She’d be dressed in a cocktail dress, a pearl encrusted tiara—a sixties suburban fashion statement—nestled in her jet black hair. My two sisters, my brother and I, already bathed and in our jammies, would be allowed to make a brief appearance. We were polite, making pleasantries, showing off their good parenting, and then with a single wave my mother would banish us upstairs. Promises of an extra episode of “Gilligan’s Island” had been made in advance of the guests’ arrival. On my way up, I’d take a detour through the dining room, stealing sweet pickles and dark olives off the food table. If she caught me, my mother’s hand would give mine a light tap, reminding me to mind my manners.
She was Patricia to my nana, Pat to her friends, Patsy to my father and plain old Mom to me. But she was mysterious when I’d sneak downstairs late at night and catch her smoking one of her illicit cigarettes. Her high heels cast off, lying sideways by her outstretched legs, one elbow on the arm of a chair, the fingers of her right hand blurred in hazy smoke.
As a little girl, I was her one and only when she used her hand to brush stray hair from my forehead so that she could check for fever. Being one of four, I liked being sick because it meant having her all to myself. I didn’t like my mother’s hands when they were red from washing dishes in scalding hot water, or when they were cold, our New England weather turning them stiff and white. I was repulsed when she’d use them to wipe my brother’s nose without a Kleenex.
There was something hard to reconcile about my mother’s hands before I knew them. My nana told me time and time again that as a young woman my mother was an emerging concert pianist, with a solo recital given at Mechanics Hall in Worcester. The yellowed newspaper clipping she showed me announcing the event proved this to be true. But I had never seen her touch black and white keys.
“Why don’t you play piano anymore?” I asked one night as she tucked me into bed.
“No reason,” my mother said, looking wistful.
“Nana said you got sick of her making you play every time her friends came over. She told me once you met Daddy, you said you would never play again.”
“Nana likes a good story. Now go to sleep,” she said, smoothing my covers before reaching to turn off my lamp. The sparkle of her engagement ring catching the light reminded me of another vow she’d taken.
Her devotion to my father was ever present–he was everything to her. I knew this not because she was the type to share confidences or gush about romance, but because their private connection was part of our everyday life. They would share a drink in the living room before dinner, their favorite Glenn Miller tunes playing as they caught up on each other’s day. Sometimes she sang, often they danced. My parents went out on ‘dates’. He took her on business trips and regularly brought her flowers. Candy came in valentine-shaped boxes. She cooked special meals, always for him. She shushed us when he needed to study for his business degree and repeatedly warned us not to tell him any bad news until he’d been home for at least an hour. Never show him all your back-to-school clothes at once, she used to say.
What I don’t remember knowing before my father died was that my mother -in twenty-three years of marriage—had never, ever taken off her wedding ring. I was fifteen at his funeral, and when I looked at her praying hands in church, I saw a ring too big to be hers held in place by her familiar diamond. Later when I asked about it, she told me she’d exchanged rings with my father twice in her life, the first time at their wedding and the last time in the funeral home, just before a final kiss.
“I put mine on him. And I’ll wear his,” she said through tears, rotating the gold band freely around her finger.
My older sister suggested she have it resized to fit her, or that perhaps she could wear it on a chain around her neck. But my mother said she would not change it. And just as she had never taken off her wedding ring until he died, she would wear his until she did.
After my father’s death, my mother’s hands went as faraway from me as the rest of her. Dutifully but without feeling, she went through the motions of mothering her teenagers. She made our meals. Cleaned the house. Paid the bills. Occasionally I’d see her back in their living room, reading the legendary letters my father had sent her when he was in the service.
When the last of us left home to go to school and a few of us began to have families of our own, my mother’s hands made a comeback. Each week, she would go to the salon and sit through the tedious task of having acrylic nails shaped and painted. Rosy pink polish graced her nails and for a time I believed they signaled her ability to live again. But then I’d see her use a pencil to dial the telephone or a knife to pop the top off a can of soda, and I would be reminded that the nails brightening her hands were a faÃ§ade. She was still distant, sadly disconnected, having left me at the same time my father did.
Looking back, I realize that I didn’t appreciate the role my mother’s hands played when I was a girl or even during my years as a young mother. It wasn’t until those hands could no longer function that I truly mourned them.
At sixty-nine my mother suffered a devastating stroke. An old shoulder injury on her left side coupled with a new right-sided weakness, and my mother could no longer use either hand to manage activities of daily living or connect with the people who loved her. Worse, the mighty stroke stole her ability to speak.
For three months, my mother fought to relearn to walk; and she did. To relearn to talk; and she did. Each time I visited her in the rehab center, her new home, she would show off newfound skills. Each time she heaved her body to standing, or dragged her feet down the hall, she would smile a crooked smile, seemingly as proud of herself as she was when she and my father were dancing.
During our last visit, juggling two iced-teas laced with lemon I maneuvered her wheelchair out to the rehab center garden. We sipped and chatted, me filling in the gaps in her sentences, guessing what she was trying to say.
“Kids?” she asked.
“The kids are great. Did I tell you Caitlin is a turtle in the school play? And Stephen is a lobster.”
“He’s working today, but he’ll be here with me and the kids on Saturday. He told me to tell you he’ll mow the lawn at the house and water your plants before we head home.”
Our lopsided conversation went on like that until she suddenly became silent, tears running down her face. With all her might she lifted her weak right arm, and with every ounce of effort brought a hand up to cup my chin.
“I’m sorry I happened to you,” she managed to say.
“It’s not your fault—the stroke. And look at you. You’re doing great,” I said, my own tears making their way down my cheeks.
And then she spoke as clearly as she did before her stroke. “I love you, Lynne.”
Now I was the one having trouble with words. I hugged her, not knowing it would be our last embrace.
Days later my mother died of a second, more massive stroke. When I saw her laid out, her hands, still at last, were folded across her chest. She looked peaceful, pretty, though her essence wasn’t on her face or in that room. A nurse had called me, telling me to hurry, but I’d gotten there too late. She’d already left me to join my father.
I touched her hands then, twirling the his-and-then-hers wedding band around her left finger one last time. And I renewed a vow I’d made when I married; to never take off my own wedding ring. I promised my mother I never would.
Lynne Griffin is the author of the acclaimed novels, Sea Escape-A Novel (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Life Without Summer-A Novel (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), as well as the parenting guide, Negotiation Generation (Penguin, 2007). Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, The Drum Literary Magazine, Parenting magazine, Parent & Child, The Writer magazine, and others. For more about Lynne’s work visit www.LynneGriffin.com or follow her on twitter @Lynne_Griffin.