I looked down at her hands, worn by so many years of labor. They seemed mostly of bone now, the fat and muscle mostly gone and the skin like a rag, twisted and stretched until it can never return to its original form. And, yet, they were beautiful to me. I spent much time looking at her hands and hanging on to them, examining every wrinkle, every vein.
My grandmother was 70 when I was born, having survived the worst the 20th century had to throw at her. Her own birth in 1883 was traumatic enough that her mother never recovered from it, so her 12-year-old sister raised her, bringing my grandmother with her to school so she wouldn’t have to drop out.
When their father died, my grandmother married young, still in her teens, and began life as a farmer’s wife—a role she never wanted, but nevertheless worked diligently at. She hated to cook, which was unfortunate, since so much of her life was spent cooking. She told me black walnut season was the worst, since she had to hull all those nuts, which tore her hands and stained them black for weeks to come. And then there were the fall harvesters she had to feed mountains of eggs, bacon, biscuits, butter, and jam—all made the hard way: the eggs gathered, the pig slaughtered, the butter churned, the jam preserved, the biscuits kneaded with those hardworking hands.
However, as hard as that work was, what followed was far worse. All the labor came to a devastating stop when they lost their farm during the Great Depression. Having been prosperous and respected in the small town they lived in, my grandparents now were reduced to living with their daughter and son-in-law (my parents) since they did not even have a home of their own.
Since none of them had much money, my grandmother used those amazing hands of hers to help contribute to the family income. She’d always been an accomplished seamstress, designing her own clothes, even tatting the lace that adorned her sleeves and collars. Now she turned that skill into making things for others more prosperous than she, most often taking in mending and tailoring, tedious, unexciting work, but work desperately needed. As she would stitch the cuffs of a man’s trousers, she often thought of how she’d rather be designing a dress of polished cotton for her granddaughters, but there was no money for such luxuries. Instead, she often took the fabric from her old dresses that wasn’t too worn to design something beautiful for the three tiny girls whom she lived with. It wasn’t perfect, but it was satisfying to see those she loved wearing her labor.
By the time I came into her life, it was the much more prosperous 50s. The days of the Great Depression and the terrifying world war were recent memories, but Grandma was ready to put them behind her. To her sorrow, however, my father began a business that took them to another town. My mother decided it was too much to take her parents with her, so they were left behind in our old house, living on the first floor and renting out the second floor to tenants, mostly teachers who could afford little else. Grandma didn’t mind the living conditions, but she missed the companionship of her grandchildren and the chance to get to know me, only six months old.
Just weeks after we moved out, Grandma tripped over the dog and fell, breaking her hip. From that time on, she would walk with an exaggerated limp and wear one shoe built up in an attempt to even her legs. In her eyes, those shoes seemed worse than the limp. She’d often tell me how she wore dainty slippers when she was young and now she had to wear huge, ugly shoes, one almost unrecognizable as a shoe. It was embarrassing and humiliating for her, but it wasn’t to me. Even with a limp she walked with dignity and carried herself with grace and beauty.
Once she was healed, she asked my mother if she could help care for me. My parents were both extremely busy with their new business, so they happily agreed. Once a week, I would spend the day with Grandma, the only person who really had time for me in the earliest years of my life. I had lots of attention in bits and pieces from my parents, their hired help, and my older sister, but only in Grandma did I have someone’s undivided attention all day long.
She would make sure her work was mostly done when I came so we could spend hours playing card and board games. She let me win more often than not. And once, when my parents went on a much-needed, two-week vacation, she and my grandfather took care of me while they were gone.
By the second week, I was becoming excruciatingly bored and homesick. My grandmother noticed and asked me if I’d like to walk to the store to buy my parents a welcome-home gift. I was delighted! She held out a worn hand for me to take as we walked, not for my sake, but for hers. Walking was painful and awkward for her, and it was three blocks to the store. Even though I was only ten, I understood the great sacrifice she was making for me, as she limped along beside me, willing to spend her paltry sewing money on a gift for my parents—just so I would be happy that day.
My grandmother died my first year of college, so she never got to see my own foray into adulthood, but I thought of her a lot and wished I could tell her how much her example helped me in those early years of motherhood when I felt I was giving my life away, never to get it back. For some, motherhood is a delight and they wish they could keep that job description forever. Not so for me.
When I became a mother, I understood that I would do anything for my child and that no sacrifice would be too great. I felt the fierce commitment that most mothers feel, that no one could rip this child from my arms and that I would fight to the death to defend this small, helpless baby. But in spite of those extremely protective and devoted feelings, it also felt like a life sentence. My life would never again be my own and my freedom was permanently gone. I’d always been confident and self-assured, certain that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to, but I couldn’t get this baby to stop crying. Sleep-deprived and completely unprepared, I fought feelings of worthlessness. My world became narrower and narrower, and soon I lacked confidence in anything beyond the duties at hand. I felt I was only good at menial tasks and that the world had left me behind.
One day as I was sponging spit-up out of a sweater of mine, I looked down at my hands and thought of my grandmother. I remembered the stories she told me, and for the first time realized she had gone through all the emotions I was going through. She, too, had to give up her life and everything she thought was important. She, too, struggled with chores she never wanted or expected. In all those stories she’d told me, she was preparing me for life. She was giving me a heads-up on what was to come and trying to give me perspective. Some things change little over the generations.
As I thought about that, it made me understand a privilege of motherhood I had overlooked in my feelings of sacrifice and loss. Parents have an advantage over others in the thing that matters most, seeking first God and his kingdom. When all other props are kicked out from under you, you find out what you are really made of, what you really value, and what it means to truly love. Jesus told us to love others as he has loved us, and that is a love of utter sacrifice. Who understands that better than a mother? In that moment, I saw motherhood as a spiritual discipline that is more effective than any other. I can fast, read, memorize, pray, and meditate, but none of those costs me as much as giving up myself day by day and moment by moment for someone else’s sake. And as I give, I let go of something of myself and replace it with more of Jesus.
So as I have sponged countless stains from numerous sweaters over the years, I continue to let Grandma teach me. I now understand that each time of helplessness passes only to be replaced by another, because that is what growing up and living for others, and for Jesus, is about. I know that just as she lived through pain and disappointment, I will too. And when the skin on my hands grows too lose and the bones become more prominent, I hope my stories will give another much needed perspective.