Relative Secrets

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Let's skip my father for a moment.

My mother's hands are skinny and frail-looking. They're olive with a weathered look, but I remember them strong, like a skinny alley cat is strong. She worked as a waitress, so she washed her hands often and they had a reddish look at times. She used Curel lotion on them every day. Her apartment smelled like Curel. She's a quick, bright woman, but sometimes, when she's really thinking about something, her mouth will fall slack and she'll clasp her hands loosely in front of her.

I feel comfortable when I live with her, no matter which of us are paying the rent. I can let myself go, I can watch a movie and not be distracted by peripheral memories. I can dance and worry only about the neighbors. It could be the pictures she has on the walls, of my sisters and me and our chilren. We are three generations of young hands. There are not many things that I keep secret from my mother. This is rare.

When I got a break, I would tear through the woods to some private place where I'd raked leaves into boundaries, or rooms. I'd scatter the leaves, then run to find another spot to domesticate. I'd pull skinny young elms down and ride them like horses. I felt alone and completly free. Later, gramma's house wasn't so safe, but I always felt safe in her woods. The dampness of the shade, the smell of honeysuckle and pine, the occasional skitterings of small animals in the leaves, sometimes a bee close by--all these things may have distracted me. In any case, they saved me.

There were secrets there, though. One of them was that my father had friends who were missionaries, and that if he ever got his hands on us, he'd give us to the missionaries, who would take us far away, and we'd never see anyone again. This was sometimes whispered into the phone, sometimes relayed to us with point-blank precision, but most of the time, an awareness of what evil would happen if he got his hands on us. My father.

My grandmother's hands were strong hands. She worked in her two acre garden everyday, and cooked, canned and cleaned at night. When I lived with her, I helped her; she had some magical way of making me enjoy weeding, washing jars, and scrubbing baseboards. The smells of dirt, cleaning liquids, fresh clean rags, made me think of how I was helping her, and made me think of other smells later that day, of chili powder, turnips, and later, chocolate muffins. Her hands always baffled me. They'd go from being scratched and dirty in the garden to pink and smooth at night. I could never get the dirt out from under my fingernails.

I've come full circle, 30 years later. While I turn my compost and ready my balcony for a vegetable garden, I try really hard to remember what I learned from her. I just wasn't paying attention. I was too busy griping about working in the garden, or too busy eating its fruits and greens to understand how much information I was missing. But I remember that we blanch the veggies before freezing them, and I do remember the smells of her kitchen and her garden. And other things too, like how her baby-fine strawberry-blonde hair looked in the sun, transluscent, and how her eyes always sort of looked watery, but clear. We were both Pisces. It is no secret that I miss her. Still, I can not manage to get the dirt from underneath my fingernails.

When I write an essay, if one small fiction slips in, the whole world tilts sideways and it's hard to steer it back to its course. I usually have to trash it and start over. I can't start my memories over, though, and I don't know if the hands are fiction or not, so I'll have to keep them and try to make sure they don't veer me too far off. I do look for them sometimes, when my environment feels safe and I have time to veer. Now is one of those times. But sometimes I look for them when I have no harbor or time, and that's scarier than the hands are. I wonder where I will end up, where the search will take me. I might go too far. Shhhhhhh, this is a secret.