My Mother’s Hands

Author's hand outstreched over a jigsaw puzzle on a card table, with Husky dog far in the background,  to show her knuckly fingers and her mother's ring

Okay, so I have my mother’s hands. May she rest in peace. For her fiftieth birthday, many years ago, us four daughters decided to get her a nice piece of jewelry. We shopped, and together we tried out a bunch of rings. 

My other sisters’ hands are more delicate than mine. My hands call to mind a worker, or farmer, or crafter, hands with knuckles and calluses. While shopping, we decided my hands were the best model for the ring for our mother, and so I was the odd model on this shopping expedition, with the jewelry merchants looking at me with eyebrow askance. With their beautifully groomed hands they examined mine, seeking different shapes and kinds of rings to try on, to find something that would balance my knuckly fingers.

One day, many years later, I was inside watching some commotion in the driveway. My son needed to add water to his rusty old radiator. The cap was stuck. My son, his dad, and a friend were standing around the car, hood up, scratching their heads. 

Watching this from inside the house, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a go. Grabbing a kitchen towel, I wandered outside. Approaching the car, I asked about the problem, then casually swooped in with my towel and my mother’s hands. 

I doubled up the kitchen towel over the four-pronged, blunt radiator knob, grasped it with my dominant hand, then added my other hand over top, all fingers locking in to seal the strength. I locked wrists, forearms, elbows to my shoulders and slowly rotated my torso. Of course the cap gave way. I straightened up, pulled off the towel, brushed off the thanks, and walked back into the house.

From my dad, I got the engineer’s outlook, and from my mom these strong, wise hands. From both of them, I was given ample opportunity to try anything, fail, and try again. 

Where did I learn to do this, I wonder? To not use my wrist and hand alone? The feeling wasn’t pride exactly, but closer to gratitude—for my parents who taught me to roof and landscape, and to use my head to solve problems. From my dad, I got the engineer’s outlook, and from my mom these strong, wise hands. From both of them, I was given ample opportunity to try anything, fail, and try again. 

I am now an engineering professor and have been given tremendous responsibility as a dean. Problem solving is what we teach engineering students, mingled with theory and design. We also give them ample opportunity to learn by doing. Yet, the largest part of their problem-solving “knack,” will come from the projects they already did, well before arriving in college.

All the tasks given to a child, the forced labor assigned to teens, and the challenges you take on as an adult, add up. I remember Dad giving instructions with no more detail than, “Take down this wall,” and I could not have wished for a better engineering teacher. We lost him too soon, when he was just 48, to cancer.

I wear her ring now and it fits me well. I could never fill her shoes, but I can fill her gloves. Around the blister earned from raking this weekend and the snagged skin from a thorn, I look at my mother’s hands and imagine them still shuffling and playing cards, the way she did when our work was through. 

My mother passed ten years ago this month. Miss you Mom! Still feel your strong—and gentle—touch.

Do you have your own stories about your mom, or dad, to share? Please email me. I would love to hear them, callahan@mtu.edu.

Janet Callahan, Dean
College of Engineering
Michigan Tech



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