Hands of Love
4. Slices and Bits
Welcome, readers ~ Today, I have for you the fourth in a series of Slices and Bits. A version of this memory poem was first published in Haibun Today. Haibun is a Japanese form of lyrical prose with haiku poetry. I hope you will enjoy this creative non-fiction.
Hands of Love ~ a Haibun
Long before I was born, you gathered warm eggs, cooked, and gardened for your widowed uncle on his rustic farm in a tiny place called Pogue, in southwestern Pennsylvania, but your mother and father’s home was Robertsdale, a mining village. Julia, at sixteen, you married Mike, a dairyman’s son, and to support his new family, he went to work in the coal mine. You rented a company house, and were obliged to shop at the company store. You once told me the cruel store-keeper poured lye on your cabbages and red geraniums. You washed your husband’s coal-stained coveralls in the Maytag on your front porch.
When the mines closed and hardship deepened, you had to leave rural Pennsylvania for the Big City. Leaving your four-year old boy at the grandparent's’ dairy farm, you and Mike drove to New York City with your seven-year-old daughter. Two of your brothers-in-law had already moved to Manhattan, and they helped you find a tenement flat in the Lower East Side.
Your little girl went into second grade — what a scary place the City was!—and Child’s restaurant on East 14th street offered you wages to scrub, and serve sandwiches and coffee. Mike found work as a driver and mechanic, and as soon as you could, you moved to a flat on West Broadway.
You drove your Model A back to the homeplace with your daughter, to bring your boy to the City. The men picked up furniture from back home, and the Maytag from the porch, and Mike wired it for you.
You had the new convenience of a home laundry in the kitchen, and put his greasy coveralls through the washer and wringer. Every day the same chores, with your sweet hands, in your twenties and thirties. With your small, strong hands, you gripped your clothes-mounded bushel basket, and carried it up the dim steps toward the light in the bulkhead, shifting the basket to your left hip to push open the door, out into the glare of the tar roof.
You pinned Mike’s coveralls, your family’s shirts, blouses, skirts, and dresses to a line slung between steel poles. When the weather was fair, the wash wafted in the breeze. But you felt lucky—you didn’t have to lean out the kitchen window, feeding your clothes out with a pulley line high over the grubby vacant lot, though you could, if you needed to make use of it. You preferred the outdoors. And that was long before me.
I was a worried child, left behind, given a home. You were my gentle friend, my second mother’s mother. You lived at 444 58th Street then, four flights up when we met. My hand in yours, we walked to Central Park to feed the pigeons. You told me, “Don’t be afraid.”
I was four when my parents moved us to a house with a place to garden. You and I sowed, weeded, and planted. You cut roses with the kitchen scissors for a crystal vase in the dining room. You never wore garden gloves. I shadowed you. You calmed me and taught me trust. Around you were plants, sunshine, and industry. I learned that life requires toil, but could still be happy. You wore beige cotton gloves to church. Woolen ones to shovel snow.
Only one gold ring — you said I could give you a manicure — your hard nails, stained yellow from sandy garden loam. No polish. I filed and cleaned your fingernails while we sat together on the couch. At the end of the singing show, you returned the red vinyl snap kit to your nightstand drawer, and stopping in the kitchen for the Jergens, you pumped a dab into your left hand, rubbed your palms together, and across the backs of both hands. “Here”, you said, and I held up mine for the excess cherry-almond lotion.
You coaxed my hair into braids. Or curled it into ringlets. Sometimes, when it was too hot for that, you twisted on the back of my head, like you did yours. You bathed me in your pink tub, then dusted me with your pink powder puff. You must have learned kindness and strength from your large, poor, hardworking family.
Your hands had tamed the steering wheels of your first car, a Model A Ford, your small but mighty Nash Rambler that you much later took me out in, and the Ford Falcon I borrowed from you at seventeen. But you had long stopped driving when I held your translucent, silken, finely-creased hands as you slipped away. You have worked hard for ninety-seven years, dear Nana. Time for a rest.
your silken hands whisper --
no more work,
time to rest.
I snip roses for your vase —
you are still
by my side
arranging clay pots —
we sow seeds
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