I walk with my mom to our local farmer’s market to meet the farmer she knows will have the perfect organic tomatoes for this year’s canning of marinara sauce.
As she talks with the farmer about the details, I watch her hands as they gently rove over the colorful crates of fruits and vegetables. Her hands are like the smooth rocks one might find alongside a river bed, as if the flow of time has gently honed her rough edges into fine, gentle tools. Her fingertips are soft and blunted, tempered from years of picking, sorting, washing and processing the same fruits and vegetables she now, almost unconsciously, selects by touch.
My mom has never been one to hold hands or engage in such effusive acts of tenderness, although, admittedly, the arrival of grandchildren has changed this a bit. Instead, her affection arrives unspoken, in such forms as a lustrous amber pear jelly she makes to glaze the almond-pear tart that celebrates the arrival of fall, or the tomatillo salsa she knows will be used for the enchiladas her grandchildren devour, or the cherries in syrup that she laboriously re-created after, I suspect, personally affronted when we arrived one Christmas with store-bought amarena cherries in syrup to top our Manhattans. Not in her house we won’t! And now we don’t for, indeed, her cherries are all the more savory for having been so created.
When my mom was diagnosed in 2011 with mantle-cell lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, I imagined that, of course, now we would talk. But her journey towards remission in 2012 also came in the form of action rarely accompanied by words. She was the patient who not only adhered to every detail of her doctors’ instructions without complaint, but brought warm banana bread topped with toasted pecans, or jars of ruby-red raspberry jam, or rich apple butter scented with cinnamon to offer her medical team at her appointments.
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We did not talk about her illness or her prognosis or her treatment, for any fear or anxiety or anger was subsumed in those jars, these efforts to nourish others, even during this struggle to reclaim her own health. Indeed, her “new birthday” to commemorate the anniversary of her stem-cell transplant was celebrated in the form of a cancer-fighting foods presentation she organized for a community health and wellness fair.
My mom’s profound sense of hospitality leaves me breathless. It is no surprise that her house lies in the shadow of her church and that her door is never locked; all are welcome. As family, friends and often strangers gather in her home after Sunday mass, she brings out the big green bowl and serves fresh fruit infused with her homemade candied ginger. All leave a little more nourished and a little more redeemed.
I watch my mom’s hands now, and I realize that there are times I wish I could reach out and just hold them. I wish I could just pause her in her constant work and talk about things –feelings, wishes, dreams, disappointments. But her hands are always in motion. They are always running beneath, through, over the course of life. And their soft edges are testament to her constant energy bent, constantly, towards others.
I have spent much of my life and will, I am certain, take the whole of it, to understand the meanings and depth of feelings reflected in her actions. While I admit it is often difficult for me to communicate through such silence, in a time of instant chats and constant chatter I find myself grateful for my mom’s unspoken model of generosity and service.
And so now I just watch her hands and hope that the moving waters of time will smooth out my edges, as they have for her, and bend me towards the service of others. Until that moment comes, I walk quietly beside my mom.
Laura Peñalver-Vargas, a former reader columnist, is a clinical psychologist practicing in Puyallup. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.