Friday, May 6, 2016

"My Mother's Hands" revisited

Last weekend I had the unique opportunity to share The Lace Makers at a tea party held in my honor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Point Place, Ohio.  The ladies couldn’t have been more welcoming and I immediately felt right at home, especially when I accidentally dribbled some tea on my shirt, then darted to the bathroom to dab water on it.
“You’re really one of us,” the pastor smiled good-naturedly when I returned to our table.
“Yeah, you can’t take me anywhere,” I laughed.  “Oh, well…that’s just me.”
By the end of the afternoon I was overwhelmed by the ladies’ grace, generosity, and thoughtfulness.  They asked poignant questions and told me fascinating stories about their own lives.  I felt a kinship with each one of them, especially when a woman asked, “What do you think all of your books are really about?”
“The mother/daughter relationship,” I replied.  "Everyone here has a mother and is a daughter.  It's the primordial relationship and one I've explored in everything I've written.  In many ways, I think my novels are conversations I'm having with my own mother."
Still, many of us know that we can have more than one mother, more than just the children in our nuclear families.  This week I've been thinking about all the wonderful women in my life who've been like mothers to me and the children I've loved to nurture and support as they grow from little sprouts into young men and women.  So to celebrate Mother's Day weekend, here’s a chapter from my memoir Open Road: a life worth waiting for for all the infinite incarnations of mothers and daughters...everywhere.  


My Mother’s Hands

My mother and I sit on the loveseat, watching television on a rainy Saturday afternoon.   “Wild Kingdom” is on and I love this show.  I love animals.  More than that, I love that I have nothing to do but sit with Mom…just her and me.  My sisters are running errands with Dad.  They need new shoes.  I don’t.  So I get to rest with Mom and watch a lioness give her little cubs a bath while they laze by the Tanzania River.
I’m seven now.  Too old to be held on her lap, so I lean against her side and feel her breath move with mine.  We breathe in together.  We breathe out together.
A commercial break comes on and Mom takes a deeper breath, then sighs.  I’m surprised…then astonished.  In a split second, my mother separates her breath from mine as if she’s untying my shoes.  The laces of our breathing patterns are undone.  Suddenly I realize that what I’ve always believed to be true is false.
My mother and I don't breathe at the same time. 
I thought that since I once lived inside of her, we would always inhale together…exhale together.  But we don't.  And we never did.  Not really.
I try to catch the rhythm of Mom’s breath…to match mine with hers, but I can’t.  I am now separate from her – completely.  And that scares me.  I don’t want to be separate.  I don’t want to breathe on my own.  I want to stay connected to my mother for the rest of my life. 
But, of course, I know I can’t.

Years later I’m working in the gardens at Esalen.  My hands sift the chickweed and thistle, freeing the chard from those invaders that will choke the life out of them.  I’ve lived in Big Sur for nearly a year and I’ve come to love the garden as if it were my own.  Instead of jeans and t-shirts, I often wear jumpers and flowing dresses to work.  I paint my fingernails.  I wear a bit of make-up and some pretty earrings.
Ken walks by and tells me it’s almost time for group process.  “I’ll gather the work-scholars,” he says.
I finish the bed I’m working, then carry the weed bin to the compost pile behind the rose garden.  Jhoti frolics at my heels, batting at the hem of my dress.  I bend down and scoop her up, rubbing my face against hers.  An image tumbles through my memory and I see a photograph of my mother holding her tiger cat, Andy, in front of the house where she grew up.  I see her smiling face.  Her impeccable manicure.  Her quaint hairstyle.  Her stylish sweater set. 
I wonder what she’s doing right now.  Is she out watering her own garden?  Is she having a cup of coffee and doing the crossword puzzle?  Is she chatting on the phone with my sister? 
As I head toward the sprout house, I see Ken in the distance talking to Margie and Eva.  Margie laughs out loud and I think of my mother’s laughter.  I think of her witty sense of humor.  Washing my hands at the sink, I marvel at the crevices in my skin that never quite seem to come clean.  The way the soil has imbedded itself into my fingerprints and stays there, no matter how long I soak in the baths.  The memory of my mother’s laughter is the same…embedded forever in my heart.
During check-in I study my hands while the rest of the garden crew talks about their day.  How they’re feeling.  What they want to work on in group process.  I listen to Carl talk about his plans to move north and start a farm of his own.  Then Margie talks about her twin daughters and how excited she is that they will soon visit Esalen. 
Next it’s my turn and I softly say, “I’m noticing that my hands look just like my mother’s.  My fingernails, my knuckles, the way my little fingers are slightly crooked…even the veins on the back of my hands…they’re hers.  I’m noticing that the older I am, the more I see her in me.  And I miss her.”

Now I sit here, watching my hands on the keyboard as they write these words.  Watching as the images form in my imagination, then drift to my fingertips and onto the screen in front of me.  I see my mother’s hands writing these sentences…writing these stories.           
But are they truly hers?  Or are they mine?
My mother and I are very much alike.  She’s taught me lessons I will never forget…lessons about love and mercy, betrayal and forgiveness.  Lessons that have taken me far from where I came.  Lessons that will move me well beyond where I am now.
And yet, we are also different.
As I make my way into the second half of my life, it’s my turn to undo the laces of my past.  Now I often walk barefoot into the joy my life has become these past few years.  My hands are unshackled from my fear and trepidation, ready to touch the world with whatever grace can be channeled through me. 

*** 
When I was in first grade, my mother taught me how to type letters on her old grey Olympia.  When I was seven, she taught me how to knit mittens with a simple gusset.  At eight, she taught me how to meticulously weed her garden.  When I was thirteen, Mom taught me how to apply mascara and lipstick.
All my life I have watched her hands cook meals, sign permission slips, do the crossword, and make the beds.  They held books and dolls and packages at Christmastime.  Throughout the seasons, they shoveled snow and planted flowers and raked leaves.  Mom’s hands rolled out cookie dough, then rolled my hair up in curlers.  They ironed our clothes and mended the holes in the knees of my jeans.  They angrily spanked me when I misbehaved, but also gently rubbed my back when I was anxious or sleepy.
My memory is steeped in my mother’s hands.  More than her face.  More than her voice.  More than the things she’s told me.  More than the things she’s left unsaid.  I’m certain it’s one of the reasons I notice a person’s eyes first…and their hands second.  I've learned that hands can be a source of hurting or healing.
For through my mother’s hands, I’ve experienced both.

When I was little, I loved to trace Mom’s brightly lacquered fingernails with the pad of my thumb.  As I constantly chewed my nails and cuticles until they were bloody, I figured my fingers would never look like Mom’s with their delicate curves, their shiny tips.  I marveled at the ease with which she painted them a different color every week.  Her collection of nail polish was amazing.  Fuchsia pinks and rose reds.  Purpley plums and soft tans. 
Clear polish (that I thought looked like spit when applied) was the only choice Mom gave me until I was in junior high.  But there was an episode when I was in third grade when I swiped a soft pink bottle from her stash and took it to school.  It was a rainy day, so I sat at my desk during indoor recess and sloppily polished my half-bitten nails.   The results were messy, but foreshadowed what my hands might look like if I took better care of them.
When I got home, I dashed to the bathroom and quickly removed the polish, leaving a residue of color around my cuticles.  Slipping the bottle back into my mother’s drawer, I thought I was so slick.  Then she saw my nails at the dinner table and chided me for blatantly disobeying her.  I learned the hard way how nail polish remover stings when it comes into contact with chewed-open skin.  Much like my mother’s spankings would sting whenever I defied her.
 Years later, I was able to grow my own set of lovely nails and polished them regularly.  French Tip was my favorite, although it took forever to accomplish.  Still, every Saturday afternoon, I would give myself a manicure and look in wonder at the beauty of my hands.  At that time, it was rare that I would think of any part of my body as beautiful.  But this was before yoga or Esalen.  Before all the real work I was about to embark upon in my quest for healing.
 In the early nineties when I taught first grade, my instinctive sense of workaholism was full blown.  Arriving at school around seven-thirty, I worked most days until nearly 5:00.  I took papers home every evening and spent most of my Sunday nights planning lessons or preparing materials for the week ahead.  Since I was constantly shuffling paper and school supplies, my hands took a real beating.  My skin soon became chapped and bloody, as I was also constantly washing them to avoid getting sick.
On a cold winter day, one of my students' mothers visited the classroom with a small bag.  “This is for you, Miss Ingersoll,” Mrs. Ellis said to me.  “I noticed how sad your hands look…and I thought you might want to use this.”
Inside the bag was a jar of super-emollient hand cream.
Mrs. Ellis nodded to her son.  “Can you remind Miss Ingersoll if she forgets to put it on?”
Jonathon nodded. 
I smiled at both of them.  “Thank you so much,” I said, giving Mrs. Ellis a hug.  “I know I need to take better care of my hands.”
And so it was that every morning and every afternoon when recess was over, Jonathon or one of the other students would remind me, “Miss I…use your hand lotion!”
I did and soon my hands were healed.  It was a memorable seed, a first step in being mindful of my own self-care that would one day bloom into a life-changing path of yoga, Rolfing, and massage. 

To this day, I still take good care of my hands, for they are the vehicles through which I create my books and novels.  They knit toys for my friends' children.  They tend my magical gardens.  My hands demonstrate yoga poses for my students and gently assist them when needed.  They provide steadiness as I ride my bike all over the city.  They turn pages in books and gently stroke whichever cat is purring on my lap while I read.  My hands cradle the faces of the children I love and applaud for them when I’m present at a recital or a ball game.  
Now my hands are ready to gently harvest the seeds of all that has bloomed in the wake of the trials and misfortunes I have endured.  Ready to glean that which can be planted in the future to yield even more awakening and abundance.
They are a catalyst for all that is yet to be seen...
A channel for the mysteries of my life unfolding.