A large black and white photographic image of a male athlete perched atop a chair, ball like, brought to mind a trophy. His skin glowed with the waxed sheen of bronze and his muscles bulged and waned in clear definition against the strain of his position. It was a mesmerizing photograph, both confusing in form and intoxicating in depth. My professor pointed out that the athlete’s body was honed perfection, but if you could look beyond the muscles presented the hands and feet of the model were less beautiful. “You can tell these are hands that have seen hard work,” she said.
That brought to mind a recent story about a new plastic surgery procedure that makes hands look younger. The doctor injects some sort of filler fluid between the bones in the backs of the hands, which plumps them and gives the allusion of ripe, youthful, hands unharmed by the labors of time. I found myself frowning at why hands that have given so much should be found wanting.
When I was a child, Grandmother often told me stories about her life as we did chores or spent an evening together. She told me about the time she applied for office work after Grandpa died because she had no other means of support. It was a desperate time for her, and she was nervous as she filled out the application. When the form asked for work history Grandma didn’t know what to write.
She had been a homemaker and farmer’s wife in the days when they had to pull tree stumps from the ground with harnessed horses. Sometimes, she said, they had to give up and would plant seeds around the stump instead. She tended the garden, picked and prepared the foods of summer for winter consumption, and gave birth to three children at home.
I have a favorite photograph showing grandma standing on top a pyramid of firewood, axe in hand, gazing defiantly into the camera. She had chopped every last piece and knew the family would be warm for the upcoming winter. The axe had almost taken one of her fingers on the very last blow, but those things happened on the farm.
Grandma was an excellent seamstress and kept her family attired. She told me my great-grandmother teased her that there was no longer any original fabric on my grandfather’s long-johns. Grandma had patched them so often they were like a crazy quilt, but then, nothing was wasted in those days.
When Grandma was in her eighties she pulled off one of her fingers when it got caught while washing clothes with her old wringer-washer. The surgeons were able to reattach the finger, but it remained limited in movement after that. I can clearly see her hands in my mind…usually holding a freshly brewed cup of egg coffee…or holding her bible in the early glow of morning for the daily reading. Those hands were gnarled and bent, calloused and scarred, but they held me close and comforted me more times then I can count.
Back to the story about the office application… Grandma had no official work history to put down. She had worked as a waitress, a cook, a housekeeper, and a personal aide when she was a teenager, but in the ensuing forty years she had worked on the farm. With bowed head she handed the receptionist her paperwork. Grandma told me the receptionist sniffed slightly, looked her up and down, and then glanced over the application. The receptionist was neatly attired; hair curled and tamed, and had long polished fingernails. Grandma said she felt like the country mouse and grew increasingly uncomfortable in the setting. “I’m sorry Mrs. Karsky,” the receptionist said. “We won’t be able to hire you. We want someone with work experience.” Ashamed and embarrassed, Grandma left the building. The sting of those words stayed with her the rest of her life.
Oh Grandma, how I long to touch those “un-worked” hands one more time, and feel the true strength of a woman.