I was my mother’s sixth child. The oldest, my sister Sherry, tells me she had a different mother than I had. There is some truth in that. By the time I came to her, life had knocked her around a bit, and she had kicked life around a little bit, too. She was in her mid-thirties when she incubated us three little girls, one right after the other, and by then she had learned stuff.
You can’t not learn.
She left the familiar potato fields of south eastern Idaho and ended up in the underbelly of Pittsburgh’s strip-mined suburbs where the evening sky glowed with the molten residue of cooked coal dumped out on the horizon in a mound we called Mount Ugly. The air stunk of steel mill belches, trapped down at the surface of the earth by Pennsylvania humidity, creating what we called smog. Sometimes the smog was so thick you could not see to drive and if you let yourself think about it you might suffocate under the denseness of it. That was back in the old days, before they closed down the steel mills and cleaned up downtown. Now the three rivers converge in a sparkling renaissance city.
Back then, when I was small and my world went no further than the school yard, I became aware of the beauty of my mother’s hands. One day I watched her sketching a portrait for an art class she was taking at Carnegie Museum. She pushed and pulled a charcoal pencil against the paper in a Bristol board sketch pad. The pencil hummed, a low resonant hum as the lead was drawn like a bow across the textured paper, sometimes in slow steady measures and other times in short staccato strokes. I remember vividly noting one blue vein that flowed across her forehand and up through her long slender finger. The tips of her fingers tapered gracefully. I recall the sound of her filing her nails with her long pointy tipped metal fingernail file. I was mesmerized by her hands.
There was wisdom in my mother’s hands, by the time I got her for my mother. Wisdom and magic, and a righteous blend of faith and voo-doo.
Something in my mother’s hands made her able to read my temperature without a thermometer. She would lay the back of her fingers against my forehead, stare into space for a minute as they rested there, and then tell me whether or not I was sick. Always, there was a tenderness when she checked my temperature. I’m not sure we even had a thermometer. Just mom’s hand. I could have monthly cramps, or an ingrown toenail, and she could press her fingers against my forehead and around to my lower cheeks and the back of my neck, and by the time she was done checking the “temperature” I swear I felt better.
I understand it now. It was something I think her spirit knew, some ancient knowledge from eons ago, that when we touch each other there is an energy exchange. When that touch is motivated by the concern of one human for another, the energy exchange is especially powerful and very sweet. I remember lying on my lumpy old twin mattress on the top bunk at BYU my freshman year of college. I was sick with something, which may have been altitude or exhaustion or just a common cold, but was more likely homesickness. I lay there curled into myself, tears dampening my pillowcase, yearning for the touch of my mother’s hand. It was all I wanted, and probably all I needed to feel peace. Kind of like when I came home from kindergarten and called her name. As long as I could hear her voice, I was OK.
My mother’s hands are cold and still now, down there in the ground under that hovering sycamore tree. I yearn to feel their softness on my forehead. I ache to see them dabbing a paper towel into hot melted cheddar, collecting excess fat as she made a batch of crispy cheese. I get a giggle-chill thinking about her fingers curled around her frosty nose of cold winter nights.
I imagine her spirit, once in a while, diverting her attention from her heavenly tasks long enough to peek down at me. She raises her invisible hand to the square, then lets it fall down through the proverbial clouds; lets it sweep across my brow. Just checking in, taking my spiritual, emotional and physical temperature; the temperature of my soul. If I make myself be still and think about it, I can feel her goodness touch me. Then, always, I feel peace.