Returning home, before touching anything, I wash my hands. After months of this COVID caution, it’s no longer a chore, more of a meditative moment of letting go. I lather up and breathe in the aroma of Dove. I’m grateful for my two hands that push off my covers in the morning, help me stretch, massage sore muscles, and clasp necklaces.
No, that’s not true. It’s wishful thinking. Most of the time, I sing Happy Birthday in my head and call it good enough. But the meditative moment idea is a good one. If the third wave hits, then I will do it—maybe. At a minimum, I will change the mental song.
My mother, in her fifties, is looking into the bathroom mirror putting on lipstick. My chin reaches the cold washbasin, where I rest my hands. “Mamma, má ég líka nota varalit?” She puts a hand over one of mine and says that my young face doesn’t need anything added. It was the first time I really saw her hands, the thinning skin, so different than my little girl’s hands, smooth and without blemishes.
Now when I look at my hands, I see my mother’s. When did her hands become like my own? If we are blessed to live long enough, our hands will sprout brown blotches, and the blue veins come will out of hiding. The thinner the skin covering, the longer the story. My mother’s hands rocked cradles for hours, washed babies’ diapers, stroked feverish brows, sewed Christmas dresses, broke up stale bread to feed birds in winter, made delicious meals, and tied little girls’ ribbons.
It takes a few years to train and tame a pair of hands. A baby catches sight of its flailing hands and figures out that they are part of her. Soon she is guiding food toward her mouth. The food in her hair means more practice is needed. The elementary years are hard on hands. Hands are put in harm’s way, fingers injured and wrapped in bandaids. By high school, your hands have learned most of the tasks you want from them. Fine motor skills are refined for phones and gestures, holding sports equipment, fly fishing, and folding clothes.
As we age, our hands take the character of our life’s work. My mother’s hands, with the constant scrubbing, working in ice-cold water filleting fish, aged faster than mine that shuffled papers and attended meetings. Hers at 50 are mine at 70.
My father’s hands were thick, strong, and rough, the unmistakable signs of hard work. A bent little finger caused by nerve damage in his small tire shop he never talked about. The deep callouses that robbed him of sensation meant he could amaze his children holding a hand over a candle, oblivious to the heat.
Tim Booth, featured in a BBC magazine article, photographed hands for 20 years to show us how hands tell more about a person than any other part of the body. His book, A Show of Hands, is a black and white photo collection of people’s hands, how their lives’ work rests in their hands. “When we look at a face, we immediately make preconceptions,” he says. “Labels are added because of how someone looks. But when we look close up at hands we don’t do that.”
Dave is a lobster fisherman and his hands are “huge sausage hands, which are filthy dirty and crusted in salt crystals. His hands tell of days pulling miles of rope until his hands bled.” Scarring and callouses the cost of his work.
Connie Colfox, with her horse Wendy, shows her right hand across the horse’s muzzle and her left hand cupping his mouth. “Hands are a vital communication tool when working with horses,” says Booth. “Arguably more than the voice.”
Betty Bull, a milkmaid, carried four-gallon steel pails from the age of 14. Living on a farm for a summer, I learned to milk cows. You wrap your thumb and forefinger around each teat, pull and squeeze, and warm milk squirts out and into the bucket. Bringing the steaming and foaming milk bucket back to the farm left my hands and arms shaking. Doing it for a living as Betty did is a different bucket altogether.
Gordon Atkinson wrote a blog post comparing his hands to that of his grandfather, a cotton picker.
In high school I loaded trucks with cases of oil. In college I swung a sledge hammer on a construction crew working on Interstate 10. My hands began to thicken, like my grandfather’s. But then I moved into the world of the mind. After college came seminary, then church work, and then writing. My hands show the thickening signs of that early work, but their development was arrested before they became hard. My wife says that my hands are delicately rough. I have a few scars – an old gash and a cut on my thumb from a fifty-five gallon oil drum. But my hands are a mixture of strength and tenderness.theologyofwork.org
We live in times where age, not vocations, changes our hands. But what we do with our lives, with our hands (and heart), tells our story more than words ever can. How often we reached out to comfort others: feed the homeless, wipe a tear, make blankets for charities, and hundreds of other ways to use them to make the world better?
“Words can lie,” Mr. Atkinson writes, “but the body and the hands do not. Your work is a sacred thing, a vocation. And because of your hands, you carry the story of your work with you all the days of your life.”