Her hands. I remember her hands almost before I remember her face. Before I can remember remembering, I was aware of her hands that could always do what was needed to be done—smooth, caress, warm, mold, paint, decorate, plant, harvest, demonstrate, sew, press, write, admonish, hug, comfort. Her hands never seem to rest. Even when she slept it seemed her hands didn’t; they were always “on call” even when they were motionless.
I used to ask her about her hands, and she would tell me stories of the scars and dents and mishaps that shaped and marked her hands--like the time she got her fingers caught in the ringer on wash day feeding dish towels into the double rolling cylinders that squeezed the water from the cloth. And the time she sliced her thumb with the butcher knife or shut her finger in the car door. “Beauty marks,” I used to hear people say about the little brown moles on the upper lip of some movie star. But I thought the term was better suited to the adventure scars on mother’s hands.
Her face. My second memory was her face and the way it felt when I ran my tiny hands over its flawless smoothness to put myself to sleep. Most children have something soft and smooth like a blanket or a fuzzy toy, but I touched my mother’s face, ran my small hands over her cheeks, and went to sleep knowing she was holding me. At naptime, she always read to me and was still reading when I dropped off to sleep, and I knew she would doze off for a few minutes, then quietly slip away to finish some job she couldn’t do with me awake. The last day of her life, I said “good-bye” by touching her soft face and singing into her ear her favorite of our songs: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there’s just something about that name….”
Her bearing. I remember her dignity, beauty and self-respect. We used to kid her about being short, though she’d always lie enough to make her driver’s license read 5’4”. Daddy would stand mockingly tall beside her and put his arms around her shoulders as if he had to stretch to reach that far down. She’d pretend to punch him in the belly and say, “Well, I’m as tall as anybody!” And so she was—straight and tall as anybody. And she was always dressed pretty and well groomed. I never remember her in a soiled robe or sloppy slippers. When I came downstairs in the morning to the smell of bacon frying in the kitchen, I would find her looking put together with her make-up on, her hair combed, her sassy self dressed for the day and wearing her high heels. She even worked in the garden in her heels and refused to wear what she called oxfords or even flats. Even when she was dying of cancer she made me promise to not let people see her without her hair in place and her dignity intact.
Her mind. As I search for an adjective to characterize her mind I think of “hungry”. I remember a piece of sculpture’s clay she once shaped in an art class. It was birdlike. The body was small and insignificant in relation to the head, the beak open and lifted skyward. “This is my soul,” she said. Her mind was always seeking something to fill her soul, and it would not be stilled. It would not be tranquilized or pacified. Relentless as the tides, her mind rolled and heaved, casting perplexities up on the beaches of contemplation.
Her hands, her face, her “presence,” and her mind—these I remember. They are symbols of a working, playing, laughing, scolding, thinking, encouraging, preaching, modeling, praying mother—a mother who stood tall, endured with grit, created out of nothing, refused defeat, served God and the world, and spoke her mind. I must keep telling my grandchildren that I remember mother.