Shared Stories: My Mother's Hands

Sometimes when she looks in the mirror, Karen Burrell sees her mother’s face and recalls the talent and tenderness of her mother’s hands.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Karen Burrell

As I am aging, I make jokes about changing the mirrors in the house, and especially in my car, as they all lie.  No way can I be getting that old or developing those awful wrinkles, or worse, hanging folds of skin!

Then at times, I’m not even there.  I see my mother laughing, frowning, or making silly faces in the mirror as she puts on MY makeup!  She knows better than that, she was an excellent nurse.
What a good nurse she was. I never saw enough of her as a small child. My father was dead and she struggled with her nursing jobs to pay old, mounting medical bills and keep us going the best she could.  War was looming and it was a sad time for many who were just surviving the big depression.

We were put in a children’s home, and later I lived with an aunt for more than a year in far-away Nebraska.  I was seven when I finally had my mother again. What followed was another ten years of real struggle for the basics, but we squeezed in some memorable good times, too.
I was sick often in grade school. I had constant ear infections that were terribly painful. I would run high fevers and get almost delirious with the pain. Mom would put hot, wet compresses over my ears, and sometimes pour very warm olive oil into the ear canal. 

Sometimes it would do the trick and the softened ear drum would burst and empty its bad stuff.  Other times I would just have to last it out until it broke on its own. Later I would heal and the process would start all over again. Finally the eardrum refused to heal again, and I would get infections more easily from swimming or getting water in my ear.

During the worse times, Mother made me apple sauce, pushing the cooked apples through a strainer so that I could suck the thick, sweetened fruit through a big straw and not have to chew anything.

Her cool hands comforted me and later, when Penicillin was new, it was my miracle. Mom would inject me every three hours. With her skillful hands, I hardly felt the needle. But I do remember once, she cried because she said she had no new place to put another shot. I know she suffered more than I did. The injections made me well again.

I remember my mother’s fine fingers, patiently straightening out the strings of the hand-made puppets that my brother Richard and I had made. Her fingers did fine embroidery years later for some of my baby’s delicate clothing, including a beautiful Christening gown made out of white parachute material that she had found somewhere.

On her old Singer sewing machine, she remade used clothing for me, and later, when I was in high school, she sewed dresses and followed my designs for gowns, not ever figuring out how to read or follow a pattern.

She fussed that her handwriting was poor. I loved it. In the days when personal mail came often, I always knew immediately that feeling of:  “Hurray! – there’s a letter from Mom today!”
I still picture her beautiful hands. She never got a touch of arthritis. What seems so ridiculous now, during those hard years of scrubbing soot-covered pots and pans, loading a wood-burning furnace, and keeping a large house clean, she would go to bed at night wearing cotton gloves after rubbing a generous layer of “cold cream” onto her hands.  Could that have been her secret?