My mother’s hands are not the hands of a woman who purchased take-out food, or turned a spoon in a cake-mix batter and called it homemade. They are not the hands of a woman who sat twice a month in a leather seat while someone manicured and polished her nails. They are not the hands of a mother who made neat little braids down the small curves of backs, skin soft and smooth against a child’s narrow neck.
No, my mother’s hands are doers, creators, innovators. They are song, music, strength and confidence. My mother’s hands are stained with ink and paint, callused from work in art studios, strong as they knead dough, fierce as they assist bodies to heal and grow in strength, and vibrant with a row of thick sterling silver bracelets up and down the length of her arms, framing her most telling and wondrous feature with glittering light and clinking sound.
In any memory or image of my mother, real or imagined, present or past, her hands are the first things I see. They represent her love for me, my fear for her, my fascination with her. I can recall her face straightening into lines of seriousness as she pulled off a soft-soled slipper and raised it, threatening my little bottom in times of childish mischief and deceit (the threat was always empty).
Her hands looked menacing waving that slipper in the air. Though I never really believed she would smack me with it, I also wasn’t brave enough to test that theory. There was a mystery to my mother, to what she was capable of.
While her left and right hand could easily ignite a curious fear inside me, these were also the hands that made the meals I loved, the hands that worked in our kitchen into the late hours of the night during each holiday season, hands that channeled the tender beating of a heart down through the movement of fingers, muscles and tendons of fists and opposable thumbs transforming maternal love into one glorious dish after another.
No one chops and slices like my mother. Her knives are shimmery fluid precision. She’ll slice a roast with her bare hands, the juice of it running over fingers that haven’t brought meat into her own mouth in over thirty years. I still wonder how she can resist one quick lick of a fingertip, to taste the flavors coating her hands. She can peel and chop garlic fast enough that you already smell the root before you realize she’s cooking with it. She taught me to chop garlic, but I’m slower. Her fingers never quiver near the edge of the blade, their confidence guide them expertly.
She kneads dough like Rosie the Riveter. Her arms, always thin, suddenly display strength, her challah dough getting punched and beat into fluffy submission. Her fingers pull up, the dough sticking to each one, her rings coated in it. It’s the cold water, washing them off that reveals her veins, thick, purplish-green and quickly returning to work.
My mother is not a haimishe, Jewish-style cook. I can count on one hand how many times she’s made a kugel in my lifetime. She doesn’t have a fool proof menu that she produces in a routine each Friday. You never knew what you were going to get for dinner on Friday night. It wasn’t going to be roasted chicken and potato kugel, gefilte fish and chicken soup. It might be Moroccan fish or bouillabaisse. You may have something on the table whose name you can’t pronounce; skordalia or moussaka. Friends would stay over for Shabbat, eyeing the meal with suspicion. No schnitzel or sweet noodle kugel in sight, instead it was seasoned and fried eggplant, frittata, artichokes, kabocha.
It’s OK, my mother would say sympathetically, I have thick skin.
Today, at 31 years old, I can’t cook in my own kitchen, with my own little mouths to feed without thinking of my mother. Most of my recipes are hers. At first, when I got engaged and was still living at home, I asked her to teach me to cook. She gave me a task and I hardly began it before she instinctively took over.
My cooking lessons in her kitchen amounted to nothing, each one ended with me watching her complete the dish and picking at bits and pieces while she wasn’t paying attention. I was a young wife with not a single recipe mastered. So I called her constantly from my small kitchen, my phone pinched between ear and neck. “What is a Deschanel sauce?” and then two minutes later “What is a roux?” “What is a good substitute for evaporated milk?” “How do I cut a London Broil?” The hardest phone calls were advice on her own recipes. “How do I make a braised chuck steak?”
Her answers were vague; throw in a little of this, add a little of that, don’t forget some of this. I had no idea what I was doing. But in time, I came closer to her craft. At first my kitchen filled with mistakes, but then slowly I started to recognize the scents of my childhood and soon my cooking smelled as good as hers. I learned how to interpret her measurements, a pinch, a dash, pour a little, pour generously–years of watching her hands do just that, drizzle olive oil, sprinkle cumin, whisk a sauce–helped me to translate her summarized recipes into actual dishes. So that even now, 12 years into my marriage, I cannot make a chicken pot pie without thinking of my mother, of her hands rolling the biscuit dough, dropping it into the pot.
What I miss the most about being a child, about the genius of my mother’s hands, is imagining the work she was doing in the kitchen before each High Holiday. The smell of her chicken soup cooking low and long in the background as she chopped and stirred and heated a skillet, adjusted the temperature of the oven.
I would lay in bed in the dark, my eyes open but not seeing the ceiling above me. Instead, I saw the movement of my mother’s hands creating food. These are my best memories as a child and even now, as an adult, when she comes to visit, it is her food that brings us together in my own kitchen. As she bakes biscotti with my daughters, as she makes a duck roast in my oven, as she glazes sticky buns, ready, warm and waiting for me to peel apart and eat with my fingers. Even now, a mother myself, when I stop to think of her, it’s always her hands that materialize first in my mind.
As I write this, I see my own fingers, dancing across the key pad, they are so unlike my mother’s glorious hands. They are unadorned by glittering bracelets, only three rings decorate two fingers, nothing ornate and thickly tarnished with time as my own mother’s fingers. They don’t look particularly strong or weak—my nails are badly chipped with nude polish and the lengths and shapes of each nail differs from the next.
Yet I want to believe the three small sets of hands I hold at varying times each day see them differently. I want to believe that they see my hands as filled with wonder as I see my own mother’s hands.