When I was growing up, and even into adulthood, it bothered me to no end that I didn’t look like either of my parents. My twin brother Mike is the spitting image of our dad, right down to his mannerisms. And my younger brother Robert shares my Mom’s ears, nose, and square jawline. Both inherited their wavy hair from my mom’s dad and grandfather. Though I had been told I looked “like an Odette,” I couldn’t see it, and I knew I definitely didn’t look like my mom or anyone in her family. I’d even go so far as to point it out, once posting a photo on social media of the two of us and saying, “We may not look alike, but we can both wear cheery yellow,” or something along those lines. Perhaps a year ago, though, I saw a photograph of my dad’s mom (and one of his sister) that I’d never seen before, and I was thrilled to finally see something of myself in Grandma Lee and Aunt Janet, to finally feel some origin and identity.
I have always been fascinated by my mom’s hands. They are small, with slender fingers and fast-growing beautiful nails. And they are capable and strong. On the occasion of her 76th birthday this past November, I paid tribute to those very hands with these words and a photo I had taken in April of 2014.
I can’t remember if it was this past September or February, but on one trip to visit her in Missouri last year, my mom and I were holding hands, and almost simultaneously recognized that we were looking at nearly identical hands … hers, still lovely though starting to tremble and to bear the wrinkles and bruises of time and medication, and mine, beginning to show their 50 years. It was a wonderful moment, for me, at least, but I think for both of us. There it was, the unrecognized familial connection I had been searching for with my mom.
I didn’t realize as I began to photograph my mom after she moved to Louisiana that her hands began to play a dominant role in the photographs. In one, she clasps a cup of hot cocoa. In another, she holds some cards as we play an evening game of cribbage. She and Brian sweetly hold hands on a restaurant table. She clasps her hands in front of her, almost as if in prayer, while she sleeps during a nebulizer treatment. In still another photo, she is waiting for a haircut, her hair just washed, her hands clasped in her lap, and somehow despite all the elements of that photo, the light shines down on her hands.
I don’t know what I am trying to capture, consciously or otherwise, in these repeated images. Is it the proof that I came from her, that we do, after all, share the bond I could never see? Am I searching for my own future? Or am I trying to hang on to these moments to treasure when I will no longer have her hand to hold, or to caress my head, or to grasp my arm as I now provide support to her? Wendell Berry, the wonderful poet to whom I often turn when words of my own are simply insufficient, might say that she and I are part of the larger circle, of a lasting line of hands to hold and be held. Whatever the reason, I know that as long as we are both able, I will keep holding my mama’s hands, and letting her hold mine.
The Larger Circle
We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance
And the larger circle of all creatures
Passing in and out of life
Who move also in a dance
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments.
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