I looked down at her hands, worn by so many years of labor. They seemed mostly of bone now, the fat and muscle mostly gone and the skin like a rag, twisted and stretched until it can never return to its original form. And, yet, they were beautiful to me. I spent much time looking at her hands and hanging on to them, examining every wrinkle, every vein.
My grandmother was 70 when I was born, having survived the worst the 20th century had to throw at her. Her own birth in 1883 was traumatic enough that her mother never recovered from it, so her 12-year-old sister raised her, bringing my grandmother with her to school so she wouldn’t have to drop out.
When their father died, my grandmother married young, still in her teens, and began life as a farmer’s wife—a role she never wanted, but, nevertheless, worked diligently at. She hated to cook, which was unfortunate since so much of her life was spent cooking. She told me black walnut season was the worst since she had to hull all those nuts, which tore her hands and stained them black for weeks to come. And then there were the fall harvesters she had to feed mountains of eggs, bacon, biscuits, butter, and jam—all made the hard way: the eggs gathered, the pig slaughtered, the butter churned, the jam preserved, the biscuits kneaded with those hard-working hands.
However, as hard as that work was, what followed was far worse. Worse than working hard was having no farm to work at all since they lost it in the Great Depression. Having been prosperous and respected in the small town they lived in, my grandparents now were reduced to living with their daughter and son-in-law (my parents) since they did not even have a home of their own.
Since none of them had much money, my grandmother used those amazing hands of hers to help contribute to the family income. She’d always been an accomplished seamstress, designing her own clothes, even tatting the lace that adorned her sleeves and collars. Now, she turned that skill into making things for others more prosperous than she, most often taking in mending and tailoring, tedious, unexciting work, but work desperately needed. As she would stitch the cuffs of a man’s trousers, she often thought of how she’d rather be designing a dress of polished cotton for her granddaughters, but there was no money for such luxuries. Instead, she often took the fabric from her old dresses that wasn’t too worn to design something beautiful for the three tiny girls whom she lived with. It wasn’t perfect, but it was satisfying to see those she loved wearing her labor.
By the time I came into her life, it was the much more prosperous 50s. The days of the Great Depression and the terrifying world war were recent memories, but Grandma was ready to put them behind her. To her sorrow, however, my father began a business that took them to another town. My mother decided it was too much to take her parents with her, so they were left behind in our old house, living on the first floor and renting out the second floor to tenants, mostly teachers who could afford little else. Grandma didn’t mind the living conditions, but she missed the companionship of her grandchildren and the chance to get to know me, only six months old.
Just weeks after we moved out, Grandma tripped over the dog and fell, breaking her hip. From that time on, she would walk with an exaggerated limp and wear one shoe built up in an attempt to even her legs. In her eyes, those shoes seemed worse than the limp. She’d often tell me how she wore dainty slippers when she was young and now she had to wear huge, ugly shoes, one almost unrecognizable as a shoe. It was embarrassing and humiliating for her, but it wasn’t to me. Even with a limp, she walked with dignity and carried herself with grace and beauty.
Once she was healed, she asked my mother if she could help care for me. My parents were both extremely busy with their new business, so they happily agreed. Once a week, I would spend the day with Grandma, who gave me her undivided attention all day long.
She would make sure her work was mostly done when I came so we could spend hours playing card and board games. She let me win more often than not. And once, when my parents went on a much-needed, two-week vacation, she and my grandfather took care of me while they were gone.
By the second week, I was becoming excruciatingly bored and homesick. My grandmother noticed and asked me if I’d like to walk to the store to buy my parents a welcome-home gift. I was delighted! She held out a worn hand for me to take as we walked, not for my sake, but for hers. Walking was painful and awkward for her, and it was three blocks to the store. Even though I was only ten, I understood the great sacrifice she was making for me, as she limped along beside me, willing to spend her paltry sewing money on a gift for my parents—just so I would be happy that day.
My grandmother died my first year of college, so she never got to see my own foray into adulthood, but I thought of her a lot and wished I could tell her how much her example helped me in those early years of motherhood when I felt I was giving my life away, never to get it back in the same way.
I was in my 50s when I became a grandmother for the first time. I had only recently started on a second career that I loved. It made me feel vital and young again, so when my daughter told me she was pregnant, I had to fight feelings of disappointment. I had just been feeling a bit carefree again, and now I was back to babies and all that entailed.
I have many friends who can’t wait to become a grandmother, but I found it difficult, and still do sometimes now that I have eight of them. I wish I could be carefree and enjoy every minute, but I find young children difficult to cope with because of all the chaos they bring in their wake. And multiple children terrify me.
I prayed that God would give me strength to watch my grandchildren, and even more important, help me to want to. One day, as I was getting ready to have three of them for a weekend, I looked down at my hands and thought of my grandmother. I remembered the stories she told me, and for the first time realized she had gone through all the emotions I was going through. She had to give up much more than I had, and she faced all her difficulties with grace and courage. In all those stories she’d told me, she was preparing me for life. She was giving me a heads-up on what was to come and trying to give me perspective. Some things change little over the generations.
So, I continue to let Grandma teach me. I now understand that each time of helplessness passes only to be replaced by another because that is what living for others, and for Jesus, is about. I know that just as she lived through pain and disappointment, I will too. And when the skin on my hands grows too loose and the bones become more prominent, I hope my stories will give another much-needed perspective.