Those Hands   Hands that had grabbed a plow, handled children, and worked with livestock were probably useless at the end. The hacking cough, that if you hear it, stays in your bones. It must have echoed through that small farmhouse. He was literally drowning in his own lungs. The thick cloudy mucus that took every once of strength he had left to cough up had turned bloody. The fevers. The sweats. The weight on his chest felt like a herd of elephants. A once large robust man, the white pressed shirt they slipped him into now looked like it belonged to someone else. He no longer had the strength to walk to the chair they had prepared for him in the front yard.  The large black mustache that hung on his lips now dwarfed him. Another chair to the side was prepared for his elderly, bearded father. His wife and young children filled in around him. It took what little strength he had left to keep his head up, it was clearly  a losing battle. It was one of the last times they were a family.   Tuberculosis. My Great-Grandmother Ella was eight-years-old when her father died. The mortician summoned. The body washed and prepared in the kitchen. The long vigil. The casket loaded onto a wagon. Her grandfather, his voice reedy with age and an accent that he could not shake, even after years in America, sang the old spirituals, as the wagon bounced and creaked along that old dirt road.   There would be no more sliding down the hog house roof. No more playing in the barn with her siblings. No more pretending that she was the great Frank Gotch battling George Hackenschmidt in the pasture and fields. She would be boarded in town, sent to live with another family, so she could go to school until her mother could move into town.    They survived by what used to be known as clipping the coupon. What little money she got for the farm was put into a bond that had $100 coupons attached to them. Every year you could clip one of these coupons and redeem it at a bank associated with that bond. Most of these bonds went belly up in the Great Depression. One hundred dollars, minus the cost of a sweater for the man who drove her to Des Moines, is what her large brood of children and her had to live on for the year. She could never afford a vehicle of her own. Then one day the coupons just went dry. A small woman, she probably never weighed more than 90-pounds, and always looked like a good wind could carry her into the next county and, yet, she seemingly carried the entire world on her shoulders.     Today, we cannot even fathom the kind of poverty that was commonplace back then. There was no Social Security, no government safety net (even with the huge holes we have in it today), no helping hand reaching down to help you up. If your father or husband died, disappeared or got sick or injured, you were just out of luck. That is the world my great grandmother grew up in. I guess you find strength somewhere or you just blow away.   It might have been the example of her mother or just the strength she had inside her, but somewhere along the way, I don’t know where or when it was, my great- grandmother became as strong as granite and everybody’s cornerstone.   She met and married a devilishly handsome young man named Hick Walker. He was a gentleman farmer, and I don’t know which word I am using looser, gentleman or farmer. Disappearing on Monday and not returning until Thursday or Friday, leaving his wife and eventually four children dependent on a dollar-a-day man to hold things together. There was nothing better to be in this world than one of his grandsons, for others, unprepared, he could be like a straight shot of whiskey. Mainly, he bought and sold livestock. Growing up, every adult I met seemingly had a Hick Walker story, some of which were probably true, most of which would not be appropriate to tell here, and all of which ended with the words “and your great- grandmother was a saint.”   His cigarette ash fell everywhere but the ashtray where it belonged as she battled with asthma. The gas powered washing machine that he bought almost killed her, and their old Pontiac, smelling and looking like the inside of a barn, life with him could not have been easy for her at times (ever), but she never complained.   They survived on egg money and the sewing she would take in. Every spring she would buy three hundred chicks. They would eat the roosters and sell the eggs. She never got much for them, even less for those she quietly gave to family and friends that could not afford them, but that is just what you did back then. Like Jesus dividing the loaves and fishes, even if you had nothing, you always managed to find something to give to those that had even less than you.   A master seamstress, she took in sewing, even made her grandson’s suits and pants. She took what she was given in payment, never near what she deserved, made miracles out of the material, and wove that will into the tapestry of her children and grandchildren’s lives. Even as a kid, I knew she worked hard her entire life. It showed in her face and hands. It is funny how even decades later a person’s hands stay with you.   I still remember her hands like it was yesterday. The blue lines, creases, and wrinkles, a roadmap of a lifetime. Even when she had the cancer, I remember running through her house like a wild maniac, one of those hands reaching out and stopping me in mid-stride. How she still had that kind of strength I will never know. “Stop, this is my house, you don’t act like that here,” they quietly said.    Those hands held playing cards, too. When we would go over to her house, she would always remind us to bring our money. Now some would think that this would have been her way to give her great-grandkids a little money. No, cards were serious business in her house, and they were fun. One of my brothers maintained a death grip on his cards as she would try to fish out a card he did not want her to take in even a silly little game like Old Maid. Everything that made her joyful to be around, that made the world special could be seen in those hands as she dealt the cards.   Those hands were gentle and soothing when I would wake up in the middle of the night at her place scared of the dark, sure something was after me in the shadows. There was no place in the world you would rather be than in the safety of those hands. Even though she was in her late seventies and her light was starting to flicker, you knew she was never going to let you fall. I still don’t know how it was possible for so much love to be contained in such a small place as those hands.     Even in the end, at one of her last family events, my oldest brother’s confirmation, trapped in her wheelchair, her hands, the skin soft and so thin you could see through it. Nearly all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were there. Those hands that formed and molded almost every one of us into what we were, the kind of family she lost when she was eight-years-old to tuberculosis, we were all still looking to those hands.   Hands like those are why we have Mother’s Day and why we should say we love our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers more often than we do.  
Those Hands   Hands that had grabbed a plow, handled children, and worked with livestock were probably useless at the end. The hacking cough, that if you hear it, stays in your bones. It must have echoed through that small farmhouse. He was literally drowning in his own lungs. The thick cloudy mucus that took every once of strength he had left to cough up had turned bloody. The fevers. The sweats. The weight on his chest felt like a herd of elephants. A once large robust man, the white pressed shirt they slipped him into now looked like it belonged to someone else. He no longer had the strength to walk to the chair they had prepared for him in the front yard.  The large black mustache that hung on his lips now dwarfed him. Another chair to the side was prepared for his elderly, bearded father. His wife and young children filled in around him. It took what little strength he had left to keep his head up, it was clearly  a losing battle. It was one of the last times they were a family.   Tuberculosis. My Great-Grandmother Ella was eight-years-old when her father died. The mortician summoned. The body washed and prepared in the kitchen. The long vigil. The casket loaded onto a wagon. Her grandfather, his voice reedy with age and an accent that he could not shake, even after years in America, sang the old spirituals, as the wagon bounced and creaked along that old dirt road.   There would be no more sliding down the hog house roof. No more playing in the barn with her siblings. No more pretending that she was the great Frank Gotch battling George Hackenschmidt in the pasture and fields. She would be boarded in town, sent to live with another family, so she could go to school until her mother could move into town.    They survived by what used to be known as clipping the coupon. What little money she got for the farm was put into a bond that had $100 coupons attached to them. Every year you could clip one of these coupons and redeem it at a bank associated with that bond. Most of these bonds went belly up in the Great Depression. One hundred dollars, minus the cost of a sweater for the man who drove her to Des Moines, is what her large brood of children and her had to live on for the year. She could never afford a vehicle of her own. Then one day the coupons just went dry. A small woman, she probably never weighed more than 90-pounds, and always looked like a good wind could carry her into the next county and, yet, she seemingly carried the entire world on her shoulders.     Today, we cannot even fathom the kind of poverty that was commonplace back then. There was no Social Security, no government safety net (even with the huge holes we have in it today), no helping hand reaching down to help you up. If your father or husband died, disappeared or got sick or injured, you were just out of luck. That is the world my great grandmother grew up in. I guess you find strength somewhere or you just blow away.   It might have been the example of her mother or just the strength she had inside her, but somewhere along the way, I don’t know where or when it was, my great-grandmother became as strong as granite and everybody’s cornerstone.   She met and married a devilishly handsome young man named Hick Walker. He was a gentleman farmer, and I don’t know which word I am using looser, gentleman or farmer. Disappearing on Monday and not returning until Thursday or Friday, leaving his wife and eventually four children dependent on a dollar-a-day man to hold things together. There was nothing better to be in this world than one of his grandsons, for others, unprepared, he could be like a straight shot of whiskey. Mainly, he bought and sold livestock. Growing up, every adult I met seemingly had a Hick Walker story, some of which were probably true, most of which would not be appropriate to tell here, and all of which ended with the words “and your great-grandmother was a saint.”   His cigarette ash fell everywhere but the ashtray where it belonged as she battled with asthma. The gas powered washing machine that he bought almost killed her, and their old Pontiac, smelling and looking like the inside of a barn, life with him could not have been easy for her at times (ever), but she never complained.   They survived on egg money and the sewing she would take in. Every spring she would buy three hundred chicks. They would eat the roosters and sell the eggs. She never got much for them, even less for those she quietly gave to family and friends that could not afford them, but that is just what you did back then. Like Jesus dividing the loaves and fishes, even if you had nothing, you always managed to find something to give to those that had even less than you.   A master seamstress, she took in sewing, even made her grandson’s suits and pants. She took what she was given in payment, never near what she deserved, made miracles out of the material, and wove that will into the tapestry of her children and grandchildren’s lives. Even as a kid, I knew she worked hard her entire life. It showed in her face and hands. It is funny how even decades later a person’s hands stay with you.   I still remember her hands like it was yesterday. The blue lines, creases, and wrinkles, a roadmap of a lifetime. Even when she had the cancer, I remember running through her house like a wild maniac, one of those hands reaching out and stopping me in mid-stride. How she still had that kind of strength I will never know. “Stop, this is my house, you don’t act like that here,” they quietly said.    Those hands held playing cards, too. When we would go over to her house, she would always remind us to bring our money. Now some would think that this would have been her way to give her great-grandkids a little money. No, cards were serious business in her house, and they were fun. One of my brothers maintained a death grip on his cards as she would try to fish out a card he did not want her to take in even a silly little game like Old Maid. Everything that made her joyful to be around, that made the world special could be seen in those hands as she dealt the cards.   Those hands were gentle and soothing when I would wake up in the middle of the night at her place scared of the dark, sure something was after me in the shadows. There was no place in the world you would rather be than in the safety of those hands. Even though she was in her late seventies and her light was starting to flicker, you knew she was never going to let you fall. I still don’t know how it was possible for so much love to be contained in such a small place as those hands.     Even in the end, at one of her last family events, my oldest brother’s confirmation, trapped in her wheelchair, her hands, the skin soft and so thin you could see through it. Nearly all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were there. Those hands that formed and molded almost every one of us into what we were, the kind of family she lost when she was eight-years-old to tuberculosis, we were all still looking to those hands.   Hands like those are why we have Mother’s Day and why we should say we love our mothers, grandmothers, and great- grandmothers more often than we do.