By Charniece Fox Richardson
My hands are at 10 o’clock and 1 on the steering wheel, and I am running off a to-do list in my head, stuck in traffic. It is 7:14 am. So far, my hands have changed 2 diapers, cooked oatmeal, washed up dinner dishes, made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a cup of coffee, wiped a dirty face, held my daughter while she nursed, and edited a 7th grade paper on Jim Crow. Did I mention that it’s only 7:14 am? I cannot remember if I brushed my teeth. This is what my mornings look like most days, and lately each morning I wake up with stiff hands. Alarming to a 36 year old who needs to type, chop bite-sized pieces of carrot, and learn to braid hair. I never really think about all the things my hands do. There is never intention there, only a sense of duty to my family and my work. Recently, I have become fascinated with my hands, noticing how they become tired more easily, how they creak when I wake. I often need to rest them after typing
I remember my great-grandmother Nell in the winter of her life. She was unable to use her hands to open juice, unfold a letter, dust her prized silver serving set. In fact, I cannot remember a time when her hands worked with ease. At 16, she taught me how to cook, telling me how the dough should feel, explaining it as if her hands were kneading flour and water into food. My hands followed these directions reluctantly then, not realizing that this was a life lesson in appreciation of what your hands can do as service for your family. Our hands make things; they heal each other when there is pain and wipe away tears. As women, our hands cook and clean, nurture and massage, teach and comfort…all in the service of love for ourselves, I think. As adults who know the power of touch, we seek out the laying of hands to soothe our souls. When I make bread I no longer have to measure water because I know what the perfect dough should feel like: smooth to the touch, soft and pliable, then rounded into a ball ready to rise.
When I was pregnant with my daughter I would often rub grape seed oil into my protruding round belly in the same way I knead dough. Using my hands I would pour all the love I had into the warmth penetrating my belly. In the spring I pushed a baby girl out into this world and my hands held her tight to my breast, my fingers holding her head as her instincts latched on to my breast, her hand resting on my flesh. My daughter Zuri gripped my index finger two minutes out of the womb. At 1 month, her hands clutched into fists, sometimes opening up, a finger finding its way to her month. Zuri’s grip was certain, everything within its reach held close and tight. Tears swelled in my eyes easily as my index finger became engulfed by 5 phalanges that had never touched a rock, held a rose or been pricked by its thorns.
I will teach her how to use her hands, and there will be others things she will learn on her own. At 2 months old she used those fists to focus. I’d watch her arms move those little balls of fingers and palms from side to side with all the wonder of possibility. At 3 months, she opened and closed her hands, still watching in amazement. From 4 months on it was all about discovery. She laughed when she touched the dog’s wet nose, as I explained the words wet and nose. When she pulled my dreadlock closer for examination, I told her it was hair, and that she too has hair on her head. These textures, all new, are being compiled and filed away into what things are: wet, nose, hair. At 10 months old, I hold her hands tight as she begins to take her first steps. During all of this time, Zuri’s hands lead the way in her process of learning. It was not until I woke up with stiff hands that I realized the importance of touch. It was then that I remembered my great grandmother and how she would curse under her breath when she could no longer be of service with her hands. I consider, laying in bed as I opened and closed my hands, attempting to work the stiffness out, that one day my daughter will hold my hand to help me walk from the house to the car in the snow – her grip tight, making sure I do not fall – a circle of student to teacher closing up. She will climb into the car, her hands gripping the steering wheel at 10 o’clock and 1, rattling off a to do list in her head, and I will remember my great grandmother Nell, and smile as I tell Zuri for the 100th time how she taught me to make bread. I will then pray that I have taught Zuri how flour mixed with water feels when it is ready to bake.