WHAT THESE HANDS HAVE DONE

The tiny, bent, old woman with a network of wrinkles covering her

face and hands, her body shriveled up now to a fraction of its original size                                                                                                         sat in a rocking chair in the corner of the room at the nursing home.

She always sat quieting, staring at her hands.  Finally, out of curiosity, I approached the old woman one day and spoke to her;

Mam?” I said “Can you speak?  Are you able to talk?”  and she looked up at me through cataract-glazed eyes;

Can speak” she said “Don’t much want to”  I felt pity for the old woman who apparently had no one, no visitors at this little facility. I visited my mother once a week.

I see you are always staring at your hands” I ventured. “Is there a reason? Do you have arthritis?”

There was a hint of a smile from her mouth.  “No arthritis” she said.  “I just like to sit and think about what these hands have done“.

Do you want to tell me? I asked, thinking perhaps she had been a farmer’s wife whose hands were always busy with gardening and cooking, canning and raising children.

She looked up, unseeing.  “These hands” she said “brought babies into the world including two of my own and sometimes buried them when they couldn’t draw a breath.

These hands  cooked and cleaned and raised four children, taught them right from wrong, wiped their noses and changed their diapers–and these hands were raised to protect my face when my husband beat me. These hands sewed clothing for all of us, and these hands quilted blankets for us to sleep under….”

The old woman paused and then, as I held my breath, she continued her tale:
These hands did it all, whatever had to be done, and when I couldn’t stand the beatings with a whip or a belt anymore, why, I did what anyone with two hands would do–“

Again she paused and looked up at me, but  unseeingly. “One night, when my husband was in a drunken stupor, I rook the biggest stick of kindling out of the woodpile and I beat that man to death, smashed his head to bits.”  I must have gasped because she paused.

And then what happened?” I asked and again the old woman gave me what might have been a smile or a sneer, as she replied,

Why THEN, young woman, I did what any woman with two hands would do.  I burnt that stick of kindling in the fireplace until there was nothing left but ashes….” 

She stopped talking and I realized she had fallen asleep in her chair, staring at her own two hands.

I stopped at the nurse’s station on my way out to ask “That old woman? Does she have any family?”

Oh, yes, ” said the nurse. “Her husband comes here once a month to visit and pay her bills…He really seems quite nice and is so remorseful for not recognizing her mental illness--”

She stopped, seeing my confused expression.  “She didn’t murder her husband?” I asked.

The nurse chortled mirthlessly. “Perhaps, but only in her dreams“.

I headed for the door, for my car, for my trip back home, thinking….all about what these hands have done.

Sandra Lee Smith

Originally posted December 1, 2009,

Updated August 14, 2018

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