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Hands

By Melissa Young

My hands are aging. I know, the rest of me is aging along with them; but I can easily ignore these changes or ascribe them to babies or chocolate rather than the passage of time. But my hands . . . I cannot escape the evidence in my hands. It’s hard to say exactly what looks different—the texture and stretch of the skin, the shape and thickness of the fingers, the visibility of the veins. When hand cream helps, I breathe a sigh of relief; when it doesn’t, I simply sigh. It’s surprising to keep catching glimpses of hands that look like my mother’s on the ends of my arms.

My mother’s hands . . .

I have an image in my memory of my mother’s hands, her fingers curved with tiny newborn fingers gripping onto them. She is sitting on the worn hospital couch next to my oldest son, their heads bent together, cradling our new baby girl. “What do you think she will do with these hands?” she whispers to him. “Will she make cookies or bread? Draw pictures?”

“Or play the piano?” he adds with soft excitement.

“Yes. There are so many things she will do with these hands.” They grow quiet, silently envisioning the possibilities. Later, I stroke the delicate fingers myself and wonder about bread, drawing, piano—so many things.

Piano hands . . .

In high school I used to think you could spot pianists by their hands. I played with a lot of passion then, almost too much. I knew so little and felt so much. I smile a little painfully now at old recordings of my dramatic interpretation—heavy on rubato, light on restraint. Music fired my soul, ran hot through my veins, spilled out the ends of my fingers. After one performance, I remember a friend clasping my hands between his and saying “It’s hard to believe all of that music is right here.” My adolescent indignation flared. It was not in my hands! My hands merely threw a few sparks from a fire that burned far beyond myself—the collective heat of every soul that felt the power of music. Such were the heady thoughts of my youth. Yet it would not be long before I would make the same mistake about hands.

In college I spent the majority of my time in the fine arts building. Day after day I walked by art students hunkered down in the halls, busily sketching on their large paper tablets. Sometimes I would sneak a look, often catching surprisingly beautiful glimpses of ordinary objects—objects I usually walked by without even noticing. These students seemed to be learning how to see with new eyes, their vision schooled in the details of light and perspective. I decided to sign up for a drawing class.

Though beginners, everyone in the class had some capacity, at least enough to generate the courage to enroll. I fell squarely in the middle of the spectrum of talent and experience. Our teacher was an immigrant from China whom we simply called Batu. His glossy black hair fell heavy above his scarred face. He spoke little English. When asked how he came to BYU, he would paddle his arms and say, “I swim, heh heh.” How he really got there remained an unsolved mystery.

He taught with a decidedly Eastern approach—we often drew without looking at our paper or with our eyes closed. He wanted us to feel the lines of the subject. When critiquing our work, he would sometimes comment on our personalities as well. “You very careful girl,” he said to me once. “Thoughtful, kind.” Slightly embarrassed, I began to have the uncomfortable sense that my drawings revealed more about me than I was revealing about the subject.

One young man in the class was incredibly gifted. “You never have class before?” Batu would ask repeatedly, apparently as stunned as the rest of us by his work. I happened to be paired with him one day when we were assigned to draw each other’s portraits. Rats, I thought. Faces were never my forte. After twenty minutes, I self-consciously showed him my result—a shape that generally resembled him but showed no real likeness. As he turned his tablet around, I sucked in my breath. My face leapt starkly from the paper. It was almost too real. He had softened no irregularity, and I saw for the first time the reality of how others saw me. The strain of the semester (strain I thought I was hiding) and the weariness that I barely let myself feel showed in every line. I felt shocked. Exposed. Disappointed.

I stared at the Conté crayon in his hand, then at the one in mine. They were the same. Yet when he drew a line it became a shape, a texture. My lines were just—well, lines. His crayon, my crayon; his hands, my hands. Frustration rose in tandem with my feelings of inability. I wanted to sit by him and make him show me how he did it—to watch how his hands formed the lines so I could form them too. I knew I could learn how to draw like him if I could see the process. Then a memory suddenly deflated my sense of forced insistence, the memory of a friend wanting me to teach musical interpretation. It’s difficult to teach, I had replied. Techniques could be learned but the music had to come from within. My sureness about my artistic ability wilted. The drawings were not in his hands—they were in his soul. Copying him would not reveal what was in my soul. I could learn from others, but I would have to find my own way.

My own way . . .

Sometimes I wish the direction and purpose of our souls were physically manifest—somehow built into our bones and flesh, like my naïve theory about piano hands. While some hands do bear scars, calluses, or grime that attest to their workings, most have no physical record of their efforts. Though they may look similar, they bear widely different fruit. Only age—the mark of mortality—imprints itself on every hand. Yet there is beauty in knowing that what is unseen to us is seen by God. Clean hands and a pure heart—they are divinely connected. The hand that has created beauty, comfort, and cheer may look much the same as one that has not, yet a record of our performances is kept on the fleshy tablet of the heart.

Looking at my hands again, I see the past as well as the future—lines that recall the women who came before me and reveal the woman I have yet to become. I picture my daughter’s tiny hand, sensing the endless potential. I think of my mother’s hands—the meals, the crochet stitches, the gardening, the tickles, the comfort and healing, the love. I feel the honor and weight of having hands like hers. A reminder to follow her example in bearing worthy soul-fruit is constantly before me. It is graven in the skin of my hands.

About Melissa Young

(Emerita) is a native of Utah and lives in Cache Valley, Utah, with her husband and three of her four children in their emptying nest. She has an MA in TESOL from Brigham Young University and currently volunteers with the English Learning Center.

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