My grandmother’s hands were small, her fingers delicate,
but they had become rough like leather from years of keeping her home intact.
My grandfather placed the key in her palms before he set off to work in the land of sands
far, far away and she was suddenly both mother and father.
A woman who became stern by circumstance,
whose hair was always tightly secured with pins against her scalp.
She knew elegance without trying.
My grandmother would point her hand to fabric at the market that was the finest
without knowing the price, and with one swift hand win every bargain.
She bought her daughters fine silks – a few.
Shoes from Italy, the leather smooth – once a year.
And she made sure her standards didn’t compromise fine taste, even when times were tough.
Her hands had forgotten to nurture at times because there was much to be done,
much to secure. And the key that was placed in her palm was much too heavy to carry.
But when she smiled, she lit the room with sunlight and golden dust. Her hands danced
to the tune of her story like the wings of the caged chicks she kept, dyed pink and green
to entertain her grandchildren – before the birds grew into chickens and lost their color.
I still remember her hands before she took her last breath, thumbing prayers. Small, fragile –
but ever so mighty.
My mother’s hands were always prim and manicured, a new color to match different outfits.
Over the years, her elegance became her simplicity, her devotion to God.
She no longer wore nail polish or frivolities. “They’re just things,” she would say.
My father, the adventurer, had to move from place to place and with every move,
my mother took pieces of her heart and scattered it over lands of snow, and the city of rain,
and then the lands of snow yet again.
She grasped the handle of the car door each time as the imagery whizzed past,
the road of unknown. Her knuckles were white.
She turned to prayers instead of songs for comfort.
My mother didn’t express her fear to us, but I remember seeing her hands raised in hope
and prayer as she sat on the prayer mat in odd hours of the night.
She used those hands to scrub floors until they were raw, when her thoughts were too heavy.
She used those hands to cook mouthwatering dishes with carefully measured spices
and counted cloves that only she knew the proportions for.
Qaida, tareeka – her principles of grace were unwavering.
She used those hands to iron wrinkles, to caress, to correct, to write notes in the margins of her books, to jot recipes, to trim her rose bushes and feathers of our pet cockatiel named Chanda
so he would remain kempt.
She missed home, but never said.
“What needs to be done?” her hands spoke for her, with every move, organizing cupboards
and making each house, each apartment, a home.
Scrubbing, organizing, tidying, polishing, securing.
Those hands that we feared and the hands we love, keep the family intact,
even as the waves roar in.
My hands take after my father’s.
They lack the elegance and grace of my mother and my mother’s mother.
Stubby – clumsy.
“But I love your hands, Mimi,” my father would say and my mother pursed her lips.
She urged me to wear lotions and moisturizers, scolded me for doing the dishes
without gloves on, otherwise my hands would “become like a maasi.”
I didn’t mind – and adorned each finger with a different ring.
Each ring, a different story, a love letter to all that matters.
“But they’re not real gold,” my mother said, sighing, to my grandmother,
who shook her head in turn. “Wear a few pieces, but they must be real,” my grandmother added.
My hands didn’t understand the weight of fine silks or grace, but I used them to dip in ink
as I wrote and painted. I loved when the ink spilled from the pen onto my hands
– and better when they stained my fingers even after washing.
My mother would shake her head in disapproval.
I was the daughter she loved but not the daughter she dreamed of.
I saw this in her hands as she combed my hair and tamed it in a tight, unforgiving braid when I was a child, and to straighten out wrinkles in my hijab now as a woman.
I used my hands to loosen the braid.
Their own protest – my hands were wings of a different bird, meant to sing, uncaged and feathers untrimmed.
My daughter’s hands are small and full of might – the soul of a mountain.
I saw her fists fighting the air before she knew who was friend, and who was foe.
“She doesn’t know how tiny she is,” one of the nurses told me. “So feisty.”
When my warrior daughter first used those hands to brush my cheek,
she set ablaze every atom of my heart, as she curled against my chest.
Wiping my cheeks, I knew that no ink would ever be as precious as my first tears as Mama. Could my hands do her justice? I feared as I rocked her back and forth.
She spoke with her hands before she knew words, to show her disapproval, her fear and anger, and fierce love. A warrior, born early and born with a song that she had tucked
within the crevices of her tiny hands.
She came into the world roaring.
My daughter holds onto my fingers as I lull her to sleep.
I caress her little hands and promise her I’d always, always, always listen to their song.
Even if it was a different song than mine, or my mother’s, or my mother’s mother.
A melody of brokenness and everythingness.
I gesture my hands to make a shadow puppet bird, and my daughter laughs.
I flap the bird up to the ceiling, until it escapes out the window.
“Where is it?” she whispers.
“Oh, there it is,” she points to the sky.
“Moon,” she says, as she drifts off to sleep.
I smile and kiss my daughter goodnight, closing the door,
imagining the shadow puppet bird flying in its own horizon towards the moon.
I imagine it flying with the shadow of my mother and my mother’s mother’s hands.
Birds in flight. Hands and wings.