My mother’s hands are open and outstretched, filled with the pellets that the petting zoo sells for a quarter a cup. I’m four years old, my brother just a toddler, and we giggle as the sheep nuzzle my mom, lapping up the food and looking for more. My mom has a natural way with animals—in our family, she is always the first point of contact for the various creatures that wander into our backyard, from a roaming neighborhood dog to the baby bird she rescued and fed through an eye dropper.
My mother's hands are swift and light as they fly across her typewriter, penning an article for our city newspaper. I am seven years old, lying on the floor of the small loft that serves as her home office. I jump up and peer over my mom’s shoulder, distracting her. When a deadline nears, I watch as she works at the light table. Her hands grip the steel ruler and blade with ease, cutting perfect geometric shapes filled with words and pictures, puzzle pieces that must fit ever so precisely on the page.
My mother's hands dance hesitantly across the piano keys. As a young girl, she took lessons. Now, every so often, she will sit down at the old piano in the corner of our kitchen. Her hands move in stops and starts, picking out some long-forgotten tunes. The music blends into the background soundtrack of the house, serving as a striking contrast to the frenetic noise of three kids.
My mother's hands are reddened and wrinkled. An IV is taped to one, pumping medications in an effort to counteract the cascade of damage occurring in her organs. The cancer had spread to her bones, her brain, and now her liver. Less than a year ago, my mom had danced at my wedding. Now, at the hospital, she holds my brother’s hand in her own, patting his back as if he were once again a small child. I sit back in the stiff chair, my own hands holding onto no one, yet heavy with the invisible weight of grief. My brother has a strength I don’t possess at this moment: the ability to connect with our mother, to still see her through the disorienting fog of pain and illness.
My mother's hands are what I see as I drive to work one morning, gazing at my own hands on the steering wheel, my skin illuminated by the morning sun that slices through the windshield. I am six weeks pregnant with my first child. It’s so early; we’ve told no one. It doesn’t feel real, not yet. I can’t really be a mom, I think. These are my mom’s hands, not mine.
She has been gone over four years now, but I still see her in dreams. My wedding ring spins around my finger that looks so much like hers.
Eight years later, I sometimes blink in disbelief at the woman in the mirror, a person who seems to be such a paradox. Yes, my hair is greying and my face has definitely begun to show its age, but there are many days when I still feel like a child, uncertain and scared. And I think, Me, really? Someone’s mother?
But there are two little beings who call me “Mama,” so it must be true. This is my hand, not my mom’s, that holds my kindergartener’s hand as we cross the street. Those are my fingers, making loops in my second grader’s shoelaces as I show her how to tie a double knot. Yes, I am a mother, but I’ve never stopped needing mine.
I think often of what my mom would say to my kids today, and how she would encourage them in different pursuits. My oldest daughter is learning to play piano, practicing on an electronic keyboard. Her hands are still learning the proper position—fingers curved, not straight—and I wonder if someday she’ll enjoy playing as much as my mom did. My younger child seems to have inherited my mother’s gift with animals. She loves to greet our neighborhood dogs, always approaching cautiously at first, then reaching out to gently pat their fur.
As I watch my children grow up, I know that my mom’s presence in my life did not end with her death. The woman who taught me how to be a mother is still teaching me; the lessons are continually unfolding, if I’m willing to just listen. I imagine her spirit igniting in my own hands, spreading a warmth that my children can feel, connecting the generations of our family across time.