My mom has the softest hands. I was never sure as to why or how. It was an enigma to me. As far as I knew, she didn’t use any special moisturizer or lotion. I was surprised every time I held her hand, the skin all silky smooth. Her hands have been through so much, you’d expect them to be rough, crooked and ugly. But for some reason they’re not. My mother has beautiful hands.
When I was little, I loved helping my mom in the kitchen. “Let me do it, let me do it!” I would shout, my eagerness apparent in my smile that revealed missing teeth. She gave me small tasks: snapping the ends off of green beans, washing the carrots, tasks that didn’t require knives. I was happy to do anything.
I’d stand on the stepping stool and do exactly as my mom instructed. “Like this, OK? Now you try.”
As I entered middle school, our time in the kitchen became more talkative. She peeled the potatoes as I told her about my day, what went wrong, what went well, what teacher was unfair, what girl was mean to me. She listened as she walked back and forth between the stove and the chopping board. A loud sizzle erupted as the potatoes made contact with oil.
“Mom are you listening?”
“Yes, I’m listening.”
Then high school came, and we stopped getting along. I hated being in the kitchen because she was always there, brooding about something that upset her. As she rocked back and forth kneading dough, she complained about how awful her children were. Unappreciative and lazy were her favorite adjectives to describe her son and daughter. She droned on and on, giving us the lecture we’d heard hundreds of times before about how she’s tired from work and still has to cook for us, about how we’re bad kids because we don’t clean our rooms. I zoned out and watched the way she pressed the dough aggressively, flour sticking to her fingers. Using her wrist, the only part of her hand not covered in flour, she wiped the sweat from her brow, and for a brief second, I thought she might be done complaining. She threw the ball of dough into a large pot and slammed the lid shut. It’ll be done rising in an hour, she told me once.
“I’ve never known kids this terrible!” And so her monologue continued.
I always imagined that she’d be so mad one evening, she wouldn’t prepare dinner at all. But that never happened. Even on days when the kitchen suffered abuse — the cabinets slammed, the dishes dropped, and the spices carelessly thrown — still, somehow, a hot meal would await us.
My dad cooked too, but only after the divorce did I realize that cooking, to him, was a means of sustenance only, a means of surviving to see the next day. When my parents began living in separate houses, my mom kept cooking lavish meals. My dad stopped. He showed me and my brother he loved us in different ways, taking us go-cart racing, playing golf with my brother on Saturdays, arranging father-daughter trips to Europe. My mom, preferring the comfort of home, didn’t do any of these things.
The greatest thing about starting college — besides the dessert section in the dining hall — was the physical distance separating me and my mom. Ironically, this distance created an emotional closeness. I missed my mom every day that first semester. I called her on the way to class and asked her what she cooked for dinner the night before.
“Just something simple. Rice and some vegetables. A meat dish for your brother.”
She always prepared a special meal for me when I visited home. While I’ve always known my mom was a good cook, the first bite continuously caught me off-guard. The fresh bread, so fluffy and warm, was nothing short of perfection. I’d think to myself, “My mother must have magic hands. She must be a sorcerer of some kind to make bread this good.” And then I took a serious look at her hands. The skin was thin and loose, crooked blue veins shifting every time she wiggled her fingers. They were turning into old people’s hands, hands that have baked hundreds of loaves of bread and chopped thousands of vegetables; hands that have been stung by hot oil, cut by sharp blades; hands that have fed two children, even when they were unappreciative.
I often look at my own hands, fingers stretched wide apart like I’m palming a basketball. They are still a child’s, sticky from the apple I just ate. Dirt hides under my finger nails which need badly to be cut. Stubborn remnants of nail polish remain on my thumb. I don’t have my mother’s hands. How could I? I rarely prepare meals for anyone besides myself, and even so, I regularly go out to eat because, like my mother said, I am lazy. I don’t know what it’s like to love two children. I haven’t earned soft hands.
I don’t have my mother’s hands, not yet. But I will someday. There will come a time when I labor in the kitchen to feed my own children. I will mix and chop and stir and flip. I will make bread even when I’m angry. I will subject my hands to hot oil and knife accidents. Slowly but surely, my hands will become like Egyptian cotton, softened by acts of unconditional love. The day my children ask me why I have such soft hands, I will reply, “These hands have worked hard to protect you and care for you, to make sure you feel full, to cheer you up when you’ve had a bad day. In return for my services, God gave me soft hands. For there will come a day when I no longer have the energy to feed you. I will not have much to offer you in my old age except these hands, silky and smooth, always ready to hold yours.”