When I walked into the room it was her hands that I noticed first. Fingers tapping, moving and pulling at the invisible threads of her tightly woven pink blanket. Hands that never stopped the entire time I knew her. Hands that told her story, even now, when she couldn’t. She once told me, “Idle hands are the devils workshop” and as a result she made sure that hers were never still.
When she was young, it was her smooth hands that grabbed onto the teats of the family cow, filling the pails with warm milk every morning and evening for the next 12 years. Hers were the fingers that took the reins and drove the buggy two miles to the school that lay in the middle of Brown’s field; a half-dozen children crammed onto the seat beside her. And for years magical sounds floated from her fiddle as her fingers ran up and down its neck until Jason Riddle sat on it and silenced it forever.
Hers were hands that pulled squat potatoes from the rich brown earth and threaded earthworms onto shaggy sharp hooks in hopes of luring lunch from the icy-cold stream banks. She could always be found with dirt under her nails except when she was pulling babies out of the wombs of her friends, neighbors and kin folk. Three hundred twenty-eight to be exact, always lifting them up and into the light of their lives, hands wrapped around the slimy bundles gently but just firm enough to keep hold.
They were fingers that where pricked with hundreds of needles over the years as she sewed dresses from flour sacks, made blankets from cat tails, and crafted the rag rugs that she was famous for creating; the colors dyed from the coneflowers, lilacs, and wild plum root that she gathered from deep in the woods. And they were fingers that knitted and crocheted hundreds of the blankets used by local babies, now stuffed in the back of closets and considered to be antiques.
Her fingers were the ones that shined shoes, swept the rough wooded floor boards, and tucked her children into bed and took them off to dream land as stories flew from her mouth while her hands painted the images in the sky.
These were hands, palms, and arms that were scarred from welding bomb heads at the Richmond Engineering Company during WWII. Hands that worked 12 hours shifts day-in and day-out; only to be told when the men returned home that the services of those nimble fingers were no longer needed. But still they were incapable of rest.
They were palms that prayed for everyone in town at least once, were always seated in the 4th pew on the right in church and were lifted on high as she celebrated her Lord. Fingers that could flick from Bible verse to Bible verse in a split second and could be counted to give your hands a sharp squeeze during the Pass The Peace part of the service; the part that came before the long-winded sermon of the minister.
These were the now gnarled hands laced with nicks and cuts. One from the time she accidentally got her hand too close to the meat grinder when she was making her secret recipe sausage and one from the time she touched the wood stove with her bare hands. There were scars made from paring knives as she removed the peels from the Granny Smiths apples, the only apple deemed fit to use in the 1,000 deep-dish pies that she made during her lifetime. And of course, there were scars gained from chasing the chickens and beheading them for the countless Sunday dinners to which the homeless and lonely were always welcome.
I looked over at those still moving hands. It seemed strange to see the pink nail polish (Revlon #28 Hibiscus) perfectly painted on her nails; a concession she made to old age and institutional food; her fingers no longer needed to pull stalks from the earth and shake clods of dirt from round deep purple beets that used to dominate her garden. Two years ago she was convinced by the beautician that beautiful nails were the gateway to heaven and her age she decided she would concede her personal beliefs on the subject and do whatever it took to get there; even if in her day girls who painted their nails were hussies.
“You can go now,” I whispered.
It took a while but finally she did, her fingers still twitching, as the rest of her body slipped into an eternal sleep… her hands the last thing to become idle… the devil missing its chance again.