“Can’t,” I grunted. “Can’t get a grip. There’s nothing to hold onto at the top.”
“You’re plenty strong enough. Get some of those quads and core muscles into it. Why go to the gym every day if you can’t even move a planter when you need to?”
“Couldn’t you get someone else to help? It’s really too heavy for me.”
How many times had I repeated that plaintive cry over the decades of our marriage? The collected tonnage of a lifetime of lifting—travel pods carried overhead and positioned on the roofs of automobiles, construction materials loaded and unloaded from trucks, tires lugged up and down steep basement stairways, and always the huge planters, often weighing more than I did, with nothing but a little curved molding to hold onto at the top.
”Just use your fingers under the rim.”
“I can’t. It’s slipping. Maybe some work gloves…”
“I’ve always had very strong fingers,” he’d say with obvious pride. Such an odd thing to be proud of.
Looking down at my own hands now immersed in the ravages of old age, none of them surprise me. I’ve seen the hands of the women I’ve loved before me change in just the same way. But my fingers always give me a bit of a start. They remind me of my grandmothers’—long, lithe, yet useful at the same time. Hers were much longer, more graceful and skilled. She was gifted artistically, but she worked hard for the skill to do those long fingers justice. Perhaps we always remember our forbearers’ physical attributes as more than they were. From the perspective of a small child, adult hands undoubtedly carry an unrealistic proportional importance.
But my grandmother wasn’t proud of her beautiful fingers. She just used them as she was meant to. They were who she was. Weaving, sewing, embroidering with me on her lap, or teaching me how to use a jigsaw; or sand those little puzzle pieces with triple aught steel wool with just the right amount of gentle pressure, I came to know her through those lovely, useful fingers. I’d watch them move over fabric, thread needles, or perform rhythmic, repetitive baking tasks when she gave me cooking lessons, all the while her long-dead husband’s pinky ring resting quietly on her own wedding ring finger; a replacement keepsake for the original she’d sold during the depression to raise money for her and three children to live on. She only took it off to knead dough. She was left-handed after all, an affliction hard to live with growing up in the late 1800s, so she understood the challenge to make fingers do what we want them to. They made her write with her right hand, though she always reverted to the left for her work. Perhaps that’s why she wasn’t proud of them. She always told me ‘pride goes before a fall’.
So why the obsession for my husband with his strong fingers? Watching his father from a distance, never on his lap, I think the child formed an unrealistic view of who his father was. Built powerfully on a broader, bigger frame than his own, his father’s hands had a strength and clout to them impossible to duplicate with a small, delicate bone structure. Physically fashioned more in his mother’s image, my husband craved the toughness and authority linked to his father’s powerful, square hands, a huge Marine Corps ring not out of place on the former colonel’s broad fingers. As a young adult, my husband was given a signet ring with a family crest on it, only half the size of the Marine Corps version but of seemingly equal weight on his smaller hands. Occasionally he’d instruct me in its use to defend against potential street muggers; lessons his father passed on in the art of self-defense with a weapon to wound. Knowing I would never be able to deliver that kind of blow myself, I didn’t listen. You have to be ready to use a weapon if you’re going to threaten with it. I wasn’t.
I think now about the irony of the inflamed tendons freezing my left thumb’s movement seemingly overnight last winter. Walking to and from the hospital after my husband’s brain surgery, the orthopedic surgeon I’d come to call a friend through many years of athletically induced injuries was an obvious stop on my way. Unable to open doors, hold a glass of water or even my new IPhone which was a little wider than the one before it, I had to submit to a shot of cortisone in the tendon to put off an operation. He knew it was no time for that challenge with my husband in the hospital dying of a brain tumor. I wondered out loud how my fingers had suddenly developed this disorder and he informed me there was nothing sudden about it. Maybe my many writer’s hours on a keyboard, but probably some overuse injury from years ago, an attempt to lift something too heavy, perhaps?
Those last weeks and hours of my husband’s life at home, I was transfixed by his hands. Once thick with the weight he’d worked hard to gain and then couldn’t lose in later years, those fingers changed back again before he died to the longer, thinner, more delicate ones his mother gave him when he was born. They whispered over the bedcovers, brushed the cheek of his granddaughter with a winged kiss as she sat next to him, passed across his face like the wispy shadows of scudding clouds. So thin the signet ring finally fell off, transparent blue skin barely hiding the veins below, those now gentle fingers floated back and forth, much as his mother had over the grass tennis courts of her illustrious youth. Butterflies alighting only for a second, pulsing a little then fluttering off somewhere else again, his whispering fingers still float in my mind months after he’s gone, reminding me how important it is to be who we really are from the beginning, because we’re going to be that anyway in the end.