My Mother’s Hands


In a previous blog (“About the Inheritors”), I talked about how the themes of my life emerge as I write, and more specifically, in The Inheritors, the very American experience of moving between cultures and classes. As I wrote about Carla, Alicia’s mother, I suddenly had a vision of my own mother standing at the kitchen sink one blistering hot Chicago day, sweat pouring down her face, her hands an angry red as she scrubbed a pot.

My mother hated her hands. Too big, she said. And knobby. To often reddened and nicked. A farmer’s hands that marked Mothers handsher as from another place. All wrong for academic teas and women’s clubs, where she’d look around at those soft white dainty hands that lay quietly in well-clad laps, tasteful rings sparkling.

It wasn’t that she had no friends. The half dozen women who gathered at our house to sew and talk all loved her. Their friendship held steady for years. Each first-born grandchild has a quilt, blocked, embroidered, and initialed by the members. Still, I never remember a time she didn’t look around at the delicate fingers, stitching away as they talked, and speak angrily about her own.

Mind you, she was a fine seamstress. She sewed everything we wore, from pajamas to winter coats to wedding dresses. They handled everything from canvas to silk. Dexterity was not the issue. It was place. She wasn’t one of them, and she was deaf to their admiration. Though she lived more than a half century among them, she remained a South Dakota preacher’s daughter set down among the academic elite. Her hands told the story.

I remember them beating egg-whites or cake batter, helping puppies to be born. I see them growing red and sore as she plucked pinfeathers and cleaned the insides of the Thanksgiving turkey. I see them glowing in the steam at the boiler, bleaching my father’s white shirts, wringing out dishrags and mops, scrubbing Chicago soot from walls and floors and windows. I have no memory of them at rest. And, of course, I remember them at the sewing machine where their size did look awkward as she threaded needles or handled lace.

Over and over, as my sister and I grew, my mother expressed her relief that our hands were not like hers. Our hands, plus our slender ankles, marked us as relieved of a grievous burden. We belonged. That, or course, didn’t save us from scrubbing walls, stitching hems, ironing shirts or beating eggs. Though we were occasionally taken to university events as academic offspring, the gothic towers a block away were, for us, simply a place to skate or ride bikes with no regard (yet) for the expectations they immortalized.

The other day a good friend pointed to my mother’s hands in a family wedding picture. They hung at her sides, fingers slightly curled, as though just finished with some task or uncomfortable with such inactivity. “You hold your hands just like that,” she remarked.

I smiled.

I grew up in another age—of automatic washing machines, dishwashers, and an auto in every drive. Chicago no longer heats the coal that coated every surface. My life has had little of the physical hardship that marked my mother’s. But her struggle to live between conflicting cultures has become a recurring theme in my stories. In The Inheritors, the mixed-race Alicia must fight the Sixties call for cultural solidarity, a call that demands she reject one culture or the other. In Nowhere Else To Go (, the neighborhood that has blended cultures is torn apart as the culture wars polarize the town.

Most of all, she gave me a deep sense of the strength, dignity, and integrity that came out of that struggle and out of her determination to preserve the strengths of her own background. She has shaped the heroine of many of my tales.

Mother at lake

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