My Grandmother’s Hands
by Vivian I. Zumstein
The diamond ring sparkled, refracting the light into hundreds of miniature rainbows. My 19-year-old eyes feasted on it. My grandmother had just slipped it on my finger. “Your grandfather gave me this ring on our 25th wedding anniversary,” she said. “I want you to have it.”
I admired the ring. She admired something else. “Your fingers are so long and straight,” she crooned, caressing them from base to tip. “I once had hands as beautiful as these, but …” She shuddered, holding her hand next to mine. “Look at them now.”
What a difference! My grandmother’s hand was gnarled: veins and tendons rose through puckered, translucent skin. Brown patches stained its surface. Her fingers were stubby, her knuckles knotty with arthritis. I sucked in my breath. With typical youthful self-absorption, I had never noticed my grandmother’s hands. They were just appendages that handed me a treat or stroked my cheek goodnight. Looking at my grandmother’s hand, it was impossible to imagine that it had ever looked like mine.
“Ah, that is what you get from spending your life with your fingers in other people’s mouths,” she sighed, referring to her career as a dentist.
Almost three decades later, I have news for my grandmother. It wasn’t dentistry that destroyed her hands; it was simply age. I am not a dentist and I am not yet in my 70s, but my hands already show the wear of time. Living takes its toll: four children, mountains of diapers, meals, pots and pans, gardening without gloves, not enough regular application of moisturizers. It adds up.
I marvel at my grandmother’s bravery in holding her hand up to my teenage one. My 10-year-old daughter, Emily, often pulls my hand to her cheek in a show of affection. Just as I didn’t really see my grandmother’s hand, I know Emily doesn’t see mine. But I see it. Against Emily’s young hand, mine already looks old, very old indeed. Sometimes I struggle to recognize it as my own.
My skin is crosshatched with fine lines that no miracle cream can erase. I haven’t got arthritis, but even so, my fingers have thickened over time, losing their long elegance. Veins meander under my skin like raised blue rivulets. Tendons fan out from my wrist to the fingers they control, dancing as I move them. My palms are calloused and rough.
As I pull Emily’s hand to my own cheek I can understand why my grandmother admired mine. Emily’s hand exudes youth. Her skin is soft and supple, her flesh plump and her long fingers slender. No veins play under her skin. As she wriggles her fingers, only the barest ripple betrays her tendons. Her hands beg to be touched and admired.
So, in another few decades, when I pass my grandmother’s ring on to an as yet unborn granddaughter, I will relive, from the opposite perspective, the moment my grandmother and I shared. The diamond, unchanged by time, will dazzle my granddaughter’s eyes while I soak in the radiance of her young, vibrant hand. I will caress it and hold it next to mine, giving her, as my grandmother gave me, a first inkling of the passing years.
Vivian Zumstein, of Dunkirk, is a frequent contributor. Her last story “Where Have All the Songbirds Gone,” led last week’s paper.