“The Story of My Hands” by Caitlin Matson

When I was a little girl I believed there was a clock in my heart, one with little hands that would tick forever. I wish someone had told me how easily those hands could be broken, how quickly the clock could stop, how there is no rewind button. If I had known, I would have paid more attention to time. I would have paid attention to the people around me. I would have paid attention to everything.

There is something very unique about a pair of hands, something sensual and rather vulnerable. Hands convey the human touch. It can be haunting and hollow. It can be fierce and intoxicating. Touch is my addiction. For just a moment time freezes, and that hand-to-hand contact can be the gateway into someone’s buried, unkept secrets.

I once worked the admissions of a carnival. It was my job to take the ticket, and stamp the hands. I touched hand after hand. Each had a unique feeling. Some had long and slender fingers, while others had thick muscular hands. There were hard, strong, silky, calloused, cold and clammy hands. There were light, dry, glossy, scented, scarred and delicate hands. Some had think fingers while others were skinny to the bone. There were white hands, black hands, the hands of the rich and the poor, and so many others. Hands with rings and nail polish, with freckles and tans. Finger pads with swirls and loops. Some hands held a faint smell of a lotion or perfume. Hands tell so much about a person, their labor, their personality, their lives. Each hand with a tale to tell. I was mesmerized by the textures and feel. I wanted to touch every person’s hand.

My father’s hands are hard and rough. They are violent and strong. Sometimes after a long day his hands begin to shake. Not the strength of a laborer, but the strength of a soldier. Stuck in the currents of his past. Perseverating on the would have’s and should have’s. The hands of a cowardice hero. With a grip, that I knew, even without questioning, had taken the lives of others. Hands that killed. Hands that hit me for the first and last time when I was three years old. The sound ricocheting off the dusty beige walls. I wonder if the sound sang him into his past.  This is the earliest memory I have of the hands of my heart beginning to break.

When my father left I was too young to remember him really. I think I have a foggy memory of him before he left, but the more I try to remember the hazier the memory becomes. We were walking in a crowded area. It was open like a court yard. The ground was hard, grey and if my memory isn’t playing tricks on me I think it was stone. I was walking behind him. My petite toddler hand hanging in his large and brash hand. He was pulling me, somewhere. His words are mumbled and jumbled in my memory, but I still have the grainy image of his anchor tattoo on his upper arm.

My mother’s hands are dainty, slender, with a hint of fragility. Such words I would never use to describe her personality. They are expressive and forever fidgeting, constantly acting as her second voice. They are silk to the touch, stained with the lulling smell of sea island cotton.  But her hand shake is strong, forceful and powerful like the “An Affair in Red Square” nail polish she wears. A handshake just like her. Like who I wish to be. A hand shake. A moment of a touch. A moment of truth.

When she cooks the kitchen, she is the main performer on center stage. I watch from a distance as she moves in fluid grace. Pursing her cherry lips, her eyes skim the spice cabinet. She flurries around this kitchen, checking temperatures and tastes, but her hands are calm and orchestrated. She pinches and dabs, painting the chicken breast with herbs. A sprinkle of paprika, the color of heat, decorates the appetizers. She toils away, hours of prep, from the sauces and purées. She broiled and minced, from French Gouger to Finnish Pulla bread. Somehow she balances a bottle of full bodied Cabernet in one hand and a knife in another.

My father abandoned my mother and me when I was three years old.  Years later he came back, in search of redemption. I remember the first time I met my father, again, in a stuffy and suspiciously over-sanitized McDonald’s. I shook his hand. It was gentle, but limp, trying to hard to be something it was not. His hands fidgeted constantly at the table, picking incessantly at each other, while my mother’s hands were warped into fists of contempt. My small and confused hands cradled the vanilla milkshake. My chin rested on the table and I read ever word I could find on the cup.  After dinner the adults argued about legal matters and things too advance for me to understand, so I colored and drew with generic two cent crayolas. I drew a Midnight Blue bike, gave myself some Mango Tango hair flowing wild in the breeze and rode on Shamrock Green grass. I drew myself on a bike, riding fast and far.

Give a kid a crayon and he will draw you baseball bats and dragons. Give a kid a crayon and she will draw you a princess living in a fairytale castle. Give me a crayon and I will draw you a picture of how to get the hell out of dodge. How to escape. I drew boats, planes and trains. I dreamed about getting out, living far away. Not in a fairytale castle, but somewhere away from everything.

I look at the helloed scar I’ve carried since I burnt my hand on that stove many years ago. Sometimes I try to think very hard about that moment where my skin meets with the stove. I try to imagine the smell of burning flesh, and my cry. More than the burn, I try to remember my father slapping me across the face for not listening. But I can’t. Instead I get angry and my scar begins to itch, like there is something there that won’t leave me be.

I’ve tried to cut it off once. I remember taking the smooth edge of a razor blade pressing it to ball of skin and watching it glaze over from light pink to a color a few shades lighter than my skin and I’ve thought what it would be like if I could just let the blade slice into my hand and carve out the scar.

My grandmother is a nurse who makes sure kale is in every meal. My grandmother uses unscented lotion to reduce the cracks in her hands. But even unscented has a scent. The scent of skin. But they are warm and tender, not the same as my mothers, both patient and pragmatic. The skin has become waves in a desert, lose from them bone. Her hands are used. Their wear shows. Nurses hands. Hands of a caretaker, a matriarch, an independent woman. She is meticulous, but always patient.

One of her many hobbies is fixing the house. My grandparent’s basement is full of wood and tools and other household equipment. Every year or so, my grandmother chooses a room to renovate. One summer it is the “horse” room, the next is the “Einstein” bedroom. Her fingers tiptoe over the ruler finding the precise measurement. She saws into pine, hacks into birch and trims with maple. I watch as her hands slide against framing and swipe away the sawdust. She does not knit or croquette. She does not coddle. She is a woman who can handle driving an eighteen wheeler truck from Ohio to Massachusetts without stopping. She does not flinch at splinters or blood.

It was my grandmother that came and picked me up after an argument between my father and me. Our already strained relationship had pushed passed any chance of redemption. I knew that I could not have a relationship with him. I called my grandmother and she drove over soon. It was the first time I had seen her fists coiled and her eyes bitter. When I felt safe in the car I began to cry, and she hugged me. Her hands were arm and comforting. They rubbed my back until my sobs faded. Part way through the ride, she took my hand into hers and held it, in silence, until we reached the drive way.

Sometimes I think back to the clock in my heart. Over the year the hands have slowly rusted and crumbled until they are no more. I wonder what made them dissolve. I think to the day my father took everything, the jewelry, the car, the money and left. I think back to each birthday where my mother would go through extreme lengths to compensate for him not being there. But even though my birthdays would be spectacular with three dimensional cakes at indoor water parks, I would still use my birthday wish for my father. Though each wish brought hope and made the hands on my clock stronger, they were never quite strong enough to sustain the rumors of my father.

My hands are smooth, but not soft. The nails gnawed down to the stubs, sometimes bleeding, with cracks along side. My cuticles are over grown. Currently there is a faded scratch marking the palm of my hand from my last cooking adventure. Specks of glitter from my eyeshadow are imbedded in the groove. My fingers have the traces of pen marks and paper cuts.  I wear a silver ring with a small diamond on my left hand and a Clada ring on my right, with a lavender stone. I don’t know what my handshake is like. No one has ever told me. They are not the light and nimble hands my mother has, not the strong and firm hands of my grandmother. My hands are somewhere in between. Somewhere in the middle. Lost. I am scared they will become violent like my father.

My younger sister, Ariana, is feisty and contrary. Very much like me when I was child. She is sixteen years younger than me. When she was born I wanted nothing to do with her. When she was two my mother asked me to watch her for a few hours. Begrudgingly, I accepted, having no real choice in the matter. I can barely recall what she had done. I just remember the glass of orange juice ending up on the ground. My hands were clenched together, locked into fists, pumping full of rage. She stood there with a coy smile. “Oops” she said with a little snicker. I grabbed her in my hands, my fingers dug into her arms and I could feel the scream curdling in my throat. I yelled and I shook her, my fingers tightening around her. When I stopped tears started to weld up in her eyes, and hysteria set in. I sent her to her room. As she ran up the steps I remember looking down at my hands and my mother’s voice in my head, “No he never hit me, he never hit me, he just shook me.” The taste of guilt and regret lingered in my mouth. And for the first time I cried out. I cried out of fear; fear of becoming my father. The genes I denied all these years, were still there. Hiding under the surface, lurking in wait. Ariana forgave me for a piece of gum, but to this day I can’t.

A few months ago, when I was visiting home Ariana came into the room and asked to watch Scooby Doo on my computer. I tried to shove her away and tell her I was busy, but she is persistent, something I’ve been told she gets from me. I remember trying to write an other essay when she snuggled into the crevice of my arm and said, “Kiki, please can we watch Sthcooby Doo?” With her doe eyes, she put her pudgy little hand into mine. Her skin was baby soft. There is something about the skin of an infant that makes it extremely soft. Maybe its because they have not entered the harsh world of reality and still protected in that age of innocence. I could not say no to Ariana. We watched Scooby Doo all afternoon, hand in hand.

I love my father. I hate that I love him, but I do. I once thought that I wanted nothing to do with him. When I walked out of his house that night, it was my belief I would never see him again. But I have. He is a part of me, a part of who I am. In my life he has not been there for me, and he has hurt me frequently, but he is a good man, and he has tried to be a good father.

When something in my life changes, as it always does, I look to my hands. I examine them. The cuts and hangnails scattered over the terrain of my hands, occasionally stained with bruises. There is a faint dog bite from my old friend Nick. I look at the little red spots and freckles. I look at the ghostly white, almost translucent, color. They’ve held wooden pencils and ice cubes, cigarettes and thumb tacks. They play with my hair, fold the laundry and even helped me hold a child. They have touched out of love, hit out of rage. They have held me while I cried, and wiped the tears away as I fell asleep. They are strong hands. They have been raised by my mother and my grandmother to be strong, tender, and nimble. They are the hands of a writer, typing out this essay. They are the hands I was born with, and would not change for the world.

Hands. They let me see into the lives of others. For just a brief moment in time, whether the touch is light, brief, or strong. I can stop and imagine what this person’s life might be like. A handshake can say a lot about a person, but so can their hands. You can see the scars they carry or a person’s personality. The simple touch, tells me I am not alone. It tells me to let go of my fear. The fear of becoming my father. I cannot rewind time or undo the choices I have made, but I can mend my broken hands.


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