A fiery little Portuguese lady with a big laugh and an even bigger temper, my granny was a piece of work. When something struck her funny, she’d throw her head back, slap her leg, and cackle. She loved sweets, gardening, and crochet.
My granny adored pastry more than any other food group. She hoped to die with a cup of coffee in one hand and a piece of cake in the other. Most of the food she made was overcooked and under seasoned, but her Malasathas, Portuguese fried doughnuts, were out of this world.
I remember watching her stretch the dough between her fingers until it was flat and thin and drop it into the bubbling oil. My childish attempts usually yielded blobs that would fry up doughy in the middle, but not Granny. Hers were perfect every time. I loved watching her flour-covered hands make this delicious treat for us.
Granny was also passionate about gardening. So much so that before there was running water on the property she inherited from her father, she’d haul the water her plants needed. She'd fill every available container, load the containers into her wagon, and pull it around the block. One by one, like a parent dolling out allowances, she’d give each of her fledgling plants a drink.
I remember her clucking her tongue at the "greenhorns" digging dandelions from the sides of the road. Her harvest was much more sophisticated. She planted kale and escarole before kale and escarole were cool. If she were alive today, she’d laugh to see that “field greens” are trendy, expensive, sophisticated items on many restaurant menus. I loved watching her dirt-covered hands make something grow.
Whenever my granny sat down, which wasn’t often, she’d have a crochet needle in her hand and a ball of yarn at her side.
She’d put her over-sized reading glasses on the tip of her nose and occasionally glance down at the fuzzy yarn sliding through her fingers, counting stitches under her breath.
It was her way of redeeming the time, I think. And maybe justifying the soap operas she watched every afternoon. How she kept track of her pattern and her soap operas simultaneously, I’ll never understand. At the end of the hour, every stitch was in place, and she could tell you in graphic detail about the latest romantic scandal. I loved watching her nimble hands create something beautiful.
It was hard watching her confined to a bed in the nursing home where she spent her last years. I baked her pound cake and spooned ice cream into her mouth to satisfy her sweet tooth. A Christmas amaryllis that always bloomed in February and a dusty philodendron in the corner composed her garden. She continued to crochet, only lap blankets instead of afghans.
And when the phone rang past midnight, I knew why.
“I’m on my way,” I told my mom, and cried the 45 miles to the nursing home. Images of Portuguese doughnuts, fledgling plants, and yarn balls superimposed themselves onto the dark interstate before me.
As is so often the case when the essence of a person has gone and only their shell remains, the figure on the bed bore little resemblance to my granny. I stroked the soft grey hair my mom had tenderly brushed from her face. I touched the parchment paper skin that covered her thin arms. And then I noticed her hands.
Unchanged in shape and size from my childhood, they were the same hands that had cooked, and planted, and crocheted - hands that had held, and hugged, and healed for nine decades.
But they were finally still.
Like Elisha to Elijah when the fiery chariot came to take the prophet away, I prayed, Lord, give me a double portion of her spirit. Use me to carry on her ministry.
Give me my grandmother’s hands.
Today, ten years after her passing, I stretch dough into flat thin rounds and fry it up for my granddaughter. I plant flowers in the yard and eat kale and escarole. I’ve yet to master crochet, but I knit words together into something beautiful.
These hands that hold, and hug, and heal, and never stop—they are my grandmother’s hands.
"O God, you have taught me from my youth;
And to this day I declare Your wondrous works.
Now also when I am old and grayheaded,
O God, do not forsake me,
Until I declare your strength to this generation,
Your power to everyone who is to come."
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