Age spots, lines, and scars scattered here and there are etched into my frail nearly one-hundred-year-old hands. What do you see when you look at them? Are they only the fingers you remember from your childhood when I scrapped peanut butter and jam on to bread for your lunch and then shoved you out the door onto rainy or snow-covered sidewalks to shuffle your way to school?
Do you know these hands served other purposes?
As a chubby toddler, I used these same hands to wipe my face when my father came in with red eyes and no tears, to tell my brothers and sisters and I, that mother had died. Tuberculosis had killed her. I was young, too young, to know what that meant. My brothers didn’t cry because that’s the way it was back then. My sisters, on the other hand, howled and sobbed. Father did his best to comfort them as he wrapped his arms around us girls. This moment of grieving was short-lived for my family though; my sisters and I were expected to do Momma’s chores now; Daddy still had to put food on the table, and my brothers had to help with the farm. In that way, our family was a team.
These same fingers were intertwined in John’s hands when we walked along storefront sidewalks in the early moonlit evening. John was my first love. And, he was not your father. John’s hands slid along my clothes and I used my fingers to stroke his arms as we kissed and caressed each other by a small river not far from my house before he took me home. This was away from the prying eyes of father and my brothers because this form of affection was frowned upon back then. As well, my father who was always gentle would not be, if he found out.
When John was killed in the war, my fingers were wrapped tightly around my white handkerchief as I quietly cried in the back pew of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. I was not considered acceptable by John’s parents; a non-Catholic, poor farmer’s daughter and for that reason, I was not welcome at his service. I went and hid in the back row with a couple of my girlfriends. I needed to say good-bye to the first man I had ever loved.
These hands were my instruments when I was young too and made love for the first time. Sure, you shift uncomfortably in your seat when you hear these words because all you see is an old woman who would never have had such desires. However, I was more than just a mother. You, my son, have never seen that. Or, you’ve always kept your blinders on to it.
But I am not resentful for my role as your mother. I love you. I hope it showed when I placed the back of my hand to your forehead to make sure you didn’t have a fever; or, if you had a fever, the way I gently placed cold cloths to your forehead and read to you until you fell asleep. Indeed, terrible fear washed over me every time you were sick or injured because I didn’t want to lose another son. When I lost your three-year-old brother, Michael, because of measles it was by far the worst day of my life. (John’s death years earlier, was nothing in comparison.)
There are other things I could tell you about: the time I worked as a nurse at the end of the War and comforted and tended to injured soldiers beside doctors; or the one time I pulled your delinquent childhood classmate James (who skipped school that day and yes, I also knew he bullied you) from the river after he fell in and was almost swept away by the current. But I did not tell you that, or your father. I kept the secret. Terrified, James confessed to me that day he was frequently beaten by his parents and worried about what they would do to him if they found out he had walked too close to the embankment. After that day, you and James became friends, and our house became his refuge.
Did James tell you that before he died in a car accident in his fifties?
You do not know me, my son. But I suspect no one knows another person completely. We are complex and emotional, with things we want to share with others, and other things we don’t. But I wish you would ask me more questions, instead of believing you already know the woman I am.