My Mother’s Hands: A Daughter’s Labor Day Remembrance
I come from peasant stock. People don’t believe it when I tell them, but it’s true. They look at me, the way I dress, how I move and express myself, the way I live and the artifacts surrounding me, all of which lead them to the conclusion that I am an embodiment of what our culture refers to as success. And I suppose that is true enough. Some part of me finds comfort in this way of shaping life: a career that I value, a certain kind of status in the world, monetary stability, material things. Another part of me knows how thin material success is. This deeper understanding comes from being born into a long lineage of hardship. And from being the daughter of a woman who wore her hardship well. My mother was born and raised on the family farm in South Dakota. She was the fourth of seven children from immigrant Lebanese parents. They had fled their country to practice their faith in freedom, the faith of the Virgin Mary, the Roman Church and those beloved Saints. Her childhood home had no indoor plumbing and no electricity. She knew only work: up at four am to milk the cows, feed the pigs, snatch warm fresh eggs from the hens; pump water from the well, help her mother with breakfast, walk several miles to school, even in the dead of a South Dakota winter. Her family was so poor that each child received only one pair of shoes a year. And each year my mother’s feet would quickly outgrow them. She was required to wear them anyway. And so she did. As a woman her feet were painful and misshapen; telling the story of her tender years and her family’s poverty. But it was her hands, my mother’s big worker hands that really told you about her life. As a girl I would sit next to her and touch them, sometimes smothering them in lotion, turning them one way and then another, examining her cracked fingernails, rubbing my soft small hands on her hard callused ones. Each time intrigued by the differentness between us. I had long fingered, exotically feminine hands. Hers were rough, ungainly. Two of her fingers were crooked from having been broken in childhood. There was no money for doctors, so they were not treated and did not heal properly. They became perpetually bent, sometimes appearing to me more like the talons of a large bird than the fingers of a woman. Her career was waitressing. She worked in a small coffee shop, each morning rising before dawn, not unlike her girlhood, to arrive at work a half hour before her shift started making sure her station was clean and ready for her customers. She was never paid for that half hour and she never expected to be. She considered it to be part of doing a good job, of being thorough. She was a woman who took enormous pride in her work.
She knew precisely how to set up her station (and though I have never waitressed, I could describe to you now each step in doing so). She knew how to carry five plates full of food on her two arms, how to expedite each move so as to never have to go to a table without pouring more coffee, picking up a finished plate or dropping off the check. She knew how to handle ornery customers and hung over cooks. She always felt compassion for the busboys, who were not boys at all, but men, usually Mexican, with families to support, who were even closer to falling into the abyss of poverty than were we. She never failed to tip them, using the change she received from her customer’s acknowledgment of her own efforts. My mother was a widow with a very small daughter to raise. She did it without help and without complaint. Though she worked almost sixty years at her career and was written about twice in two local newspapers, she never made more than minimum wage. She never belonged to a union, never received health benefits, had no paid days off for illness; not a speck of retirement. She didn’t complain about this either. She saw it as a fact of life. As a girl I was ashamed of my mother’s hands. I wanted them to be refined and feminine like the hands of my girlfriend’s mothers. I wanted them to be the hands of an elegant lady: a lady who could move in a social network of cultured acquaintances. I wanted this because my friends were not middle class girls, let alone working class like myself; they were truly wealthy. I couldn’t easily bridge my two worlds. The disparity of money and class that I experienced daily was wide and deep. I knew only that something about the world I visited seemed easier, looked prettier. I hadn’t yet come to understand what was missing. I hadn’t yet seen that a certain connection to life had been bled out of it. In the world I lived in everything was just what it was. There wasn’t enough money or enough energy to hide what was so: beautiful and ugly, harsh and sweet touching each other, blending into each other moment by moment. In the world I visited, there was plenty of money and motivation to keep the pretty out front and the ugly hidden. In that world, things could look one way when they were really another. When I looked at my mother’s hands I could feel, though could not name, the gap between us. My hands told a story that had not yet been lived. This girl would break from her lineage. But she would carry with her always the memory of that first world, feeling a kind of longing for its unadulterated realness. She would carry too an abiding respect and appreciation for those like her mother, who labor daily making the world that much easier for the rest of us. Published in the Sacramento Business Journal, August 30, 2003