When I was little, my mother occasionally sat me down at the kitchen table in front of a bowl of warm, soapy water. While I luxuriated in soaking my grimy hands, roughened by playing in the woods or nailing 2-by-4s for a kids’ clubhouse with my father, she arranged an armamentarium of sorts on a small white towel. With the little knife of the nail clippers, she cleaned dirt from under my nails, filed the broken ones to even lengths with the emery board, then pushed back the cuticles with Q-tips dipped in baby oil to show the beautiful “moons.” Did all mothers do this? I assumed so. It was a delicious and spontaneous event taken out of her busy day: her focused attention, the pretty, tidy, “ladylike” result. I never asked for polish.
My mother had delicate, thin fingers like those in some 19th-century oil portraits of grandes dames — John Singer Sargent fingers, but strong. I didn’t consciously observe her hands as aesthetic objects until much later, when she was living in a retirement community that hired a manicurist. There, we would sit side by side as we chatted. When we held hands, her skin felt remarkably soft next to mine, now roughened by gardening. “Your skin is so nice,” I’d say admiringly. “Your hands are so pretty.”
In childhood I saw my mother’s deft fingers doing strenuous tasks I could not aspire to. She could twist water out of heavy cotton sheets even after they had gone through the wringer. On our clothesline outside, she’d hold up a heavy, dripping sheet with one hand while clipping it along its length with wooden clothespins. She could fold big sheets by herself, corners matched as neatly as they do at Buckingham Palace. Deep into old age, she could still open pickle jars.
Mommy’s handwriting was as distinctive as her fingers. She taught us to love language and kindness, lessons she brought into the classroom as a beloved first-grade teacher. After I married, she’d send us store-bought birthday cards with a check enclosed for whatever we wanted, overwriting the treacly, pre-printed sentiment with her own specific pride and pleasure in how our lives were going. She wrote frequent gossipy letters — never a harsh word — with encouraging advice to me, and, eventually, her grandson. I became a writer, and he did too. Her gifts endured over the generations.
Writing was a deep well she drew from often. Once retired, she wrote letters to the editor of the Miami Herald, her new hometown paper. In her 90s, sometimes waking alone in her new apartment, she wrote calming commands to herself in a notebook she kept by her bedside — a sign of her ability to self-soothe. She had a rich temperament that by then had survived much calamity.
My mother’s name was Betty, but my father called her Beatrice, like Dante’s baby love. When my father was diagnosed with the wasting illness that would kill him in less than a year, Beatrice cared for him at home, so he could die there, as he wished. She was about 60 then. I would watch her hands crushing medication for him. She explained to me quietly, out of his hearing, that he didn’t want to take anything; he’d never taken pills, not even aspirin.
His Beatrice remained competent and sweet-tempered even as his state worsened unpredictably. She never complained. If she cried, it was not in front of me. The time for emotion might come, but it wasn’t now. Now was for providing comfort and safety — the best conditions possible for the worst situation imaginable. Ice cream was the last food he could easily eat. She ground the tiny Valium so fine that he would swallow relief without noticing.
Just as I had in childhood, I took what she did as a model of consideration guided by love. That was how people ought to act in an emergency. They stayed calm. They did what was necessary.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, is the author of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.