by Sheila White Arnold
Most of the hands that cared for me in childhood were rough, red, callused hands with uneven, dirty nails and ragged cuticles. These hands often tucked me in at night, pushed my hair out of my eyes and wiped the dirt off of my face. On the farm with six brothers and a hard working dad, I was exposed to a toughness and resilience that can only result in chapped skin, gnarled fingers from heavy toil, and dirty fingernails from motor grease. But Mama’s hands, always soft and smooth and groomed, seemed immune to the toll of the hard work. Mama’s hands, tender and gently dotted with pale, brown age spots, held my hand and always smelled of Jergen’s lotion.
Those were the hands that made all of my clothes. She would sit with me when the latest Sears and Roebuck catalog came in and have me choose dresses that I liked. I would dream of how I would look in the dresses I chose, how it would twirl as I spun in circles. I would picture myself wearing my new creation to school and the envious looks I would get from Brenda Tacker. Brenda Tacker didn’t know the joy of seeing a dress come to life in her own living room because all of her dresses came from the store. After looking and dreaming, I would settle on one or two and Mama would then create a pattern out of old newspaper for the dress. Using her treadle sewing machine (and much later, her electric Atlas sewing machine that she bought from a door-to-door salesman), my new dress would become a reality. She often had me choose the rickrack and buttons, and her soft, deft hands would eventually teach me to make my own dresses.
Those same well-groomed hands could split a cord of wood for our wood heater just as well as any man. They could milk our old cow Mary every morning, usually before any of the children were even awake and those hands could churn butter from the cream that she skimmed from the top of the milk pail. When Mary would escape from her pen, Mama’s hands could guide her back to the gate and secure the fence where she had gotten out. As a young child, I was terribly afraid of the farm animals. The cows, the hogs and the mules were huge and I had seen my brothers and cousins hurt by them. They terrified me. Mama’s hands were the ones I reached for when afraid, and the smell of Jergen’s lotion made me know I was always safe.
Mama’s hands could wring a chicken’s neck and clean that chicken for our dinner; they could skin a rabbit and scale a fish. She could wash a load of jeans in that old wringer washing machine on the back porch and hang them out to dry on the clothesline, even when it was cold enough to freeze those wet clothes into solid chunks of denim. Her hands assisted in the birthing of hundreds of piglets from scores of sows and they helped as hogs were butchered and dressed to hang in the smokehouse. She could put up a whole trailer load of corn, chop and pick cotton as well as any of the men; she could shell a bushel of purple hull peas and can enough tomatoes to feed the seven of us all through the winter. Those hands were never still.
Mama’s quilting frame that stayed hitched up to the ceiling during the day would be lowered as night fell, and Mama’s hands would skillfully stitch on whatever new quilt she was making as I played underneath the frame. If I played near her feet, I could smell the Jergen’s lotion on her hands as she sewed the quilts that would keep us warm during the cold winter nights.
Her hands could sweep my bangs out of my eyes, tie the sashes of my new dress and expertly cut new paper doll dresses. They could cut a switch for an errant offspring and soothe the sobs of a hurt soul.
When daddy hurt his back and couldn’t work, Mama’s hands were the ones that lifted his body from the bed to the chair, then finally from the chair to the hospital where he recovered enough to walk again. Her tired, depressed hands were the hands that packed up the house we had rented for the last eight years and moved us to a different house in town since Daddy couldn’t farm any more.
Mama’s hands, as she aged, developed even larger brown age spots and arthritic enlarged knuckles. But they always smelled of Jergen’s lotion, even as she lived the last three years of her life in a nursing home.
Her hands were the last thing of hers that I touched, just before they closed the lid of her casket. And I swear, I could still smell that Jergen’s lotion.
About Sheila White Arnold
Sheila Arnold is a retired educator, wife, mother of 2 and grandmother of 6. She volunteers in her community to help improve literacy, expand educational opportunities, and provide artists of all genres an opportunity to showcase their works. She is a graduate of Union University in Jackson, TN and the University of Memphis. She lives in Jackson with her husband, Bobby and their dog, Louie.