Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A helping hand

Just past the main Summertown shops, and just before the medical centres and Marston Ferry Road, is a small parade of shops that include an internet cafe, a bridal boutique and a corner shop.

I first walked into that corner shop years ago - to pick up a Pepsi or chocolate on my way in to person the Lodge at the O on a Saturday. I remember the woman behind the counter - mid 50s, face lined with care, shalwar qamiz. She smiled at me - one, I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't return, because I've grown up hating people who assume we're going to get on because we look alike. You're South Asian, I'm South Asian. BFD.

But I thought of her long after I left, even as I turned into the Oratory forecourt. Something about the...weariness, the sense of dreams and hope lost in a dreary existence, but the real warmth and kindness that had survived. Something that kept her smiling at someone who reminded her of home when she was thousands of miles away.

So I kept going back - not often, but if I needed to grab something on my way down - e.g., a Pepsi, chocolate or (most often) a synthetic blueberry muffin for breakfast - that's where I'll go - the supermarket chains don't need my business. She, who works from 7.30-9 with her husband, does.

And so, over time, I started smiling back and asking her how she was. "Fine, just another day" she'd say, in her accent that reminded me so much of baking summer days, the smell of freshly pressed shalwars and goat cooking in the kitchen, the dust of Bahawalpur, Sahiwal and Lahore on my feet. Slowly, but surely, she'd ask questions - about me, where my family was from, work, would even occasionally tell me I looked tired.

She looks so like my dhadhi's colourful neighbours in Sahiwal, how could I not unbend and respond?

She would light up when I came in wearing shalwar qamiz (or qamiz jeans) - in fact, on Easter morning, she was totally in love with my red and gold kurta, which I felt made me look like a tent that could have held a harem for an Arabian monarch and required me slapping a sign across my ass reading: "Caution: wide load".

About 10 days ago, I came in for my usual, and handed her a £10 note for a £1 transaction, which meant that I got a £5 note and 4 £1 coins - yes, slightly unwieldy for a second, but nothing I haven't done a thousand times before.

She placed her hand underneath mine in a gesture repeated by countless mothers everywhere when a three year old hand is struggling to hold currency too big for it.

I looked down to see that her hand was smaller than mine.

But it was the meaning of the gesture that made me choke up - the "I've got you, it's ok if you can't handle it alone." My own mother would have let me drop those coins out of my tiny three-year-old hand and then yelled at me for being clumsy. My entire childhood felt like it was about these things I was supposed to know how to do, but was never taught how - then got yelled at for being clumsy, stupid, a deliberate bane to my parents' existence.

Yes, that support was decades too late. But that it came from someone who could have been my mother mattered. A lot.

And of course, it got me thinking about one of my favourite body parts - hands.

I am in awe of hands. Hands do so much more than we ever think about: punctuate, comfort, bless, hold, express affection, communicate far more than our words ever will, love in ways naughty and nice, nourish, pull people away from danger, and so much more - in addition to the standard picking up, putting away, carrying, giving, receiving, opening, closing, making things, catching us when we fall, covering our mouths when we yawn - we begin using them the moment we're born and don't stop until the moment we die.

And yes, they can abuse.

Hands - with opposable thumbs getting a special mention - rock. No engineer could create such a marvel.

God, I love watching them - petite hands; large hands; long, elegant hands; square, practical hands and everything in between. Old hands with so many stories to tell; baby hands with stories yet to be created.


I love watching hands DO things - cook, make furniture, sew, knit, pick up a child, play an instrument, handle a camera, gesture - anything, though, perhaps, most shamefully, light up. I know I should tell my male friends to quit smoking, or offer them hypnotherapy to quit smoking, but I'm so entranced by watching their hands (and, as noted before, their expressions) as they light up, I hesitate, telling myself they'd get annoyed by my nagging.

So secretly, in guilty pleasure, I watch out of the corner of my eye.

Every so often, I even stop, amazed, by what my own hands are doing. Weirdly, because my parents kept telling me I was clumsy - I keep thinking of my hands as those of an 8-year-old, when I remember watching my parents DO things that I thought, "I'll never be able to do that - ever." My mother cooking, my father doing his tie (that one still needs practice - I can undo them well enough...), my mother using a blood pressure cuff, either one fixing something - anything I considered 'adult'. Suddenly, I'll find myself in the middle of making hamburgers the way my mother used to, or holding a child easily, or doing something reasonably skilled and stop and stare at my adult hands like they belong to a complete stranger. Then offer up gratitude for having them.

Hands are about rites of passage too, in so many ways. Mine came earlier than it should, because my father took beta blockers for years and lost strength more quickly than he should. One day, more years ago than I care to count, I was over at their new house. My father was struggling to open a jar, and I said, in a voice far too reminiscent of his, "Here, give it to me."

He did. I promptly opened it and handed it back to him. He wasn't even 60 then, but we both understood what it meant.

Hands do so much - is it any wonder then, that the tale of the maiden who loses her hands, leaves the kingdom with her babe and watches them grow back is a tale of initiation? Or that a woman who is beyond tired dreams of herself with her arms crossed at the wrists in front of her, with bloody stumps where her hands should be, in a classic pose of "I give up"?

I think not.

I love hands, but what I love most about them is that they heal us and eachother in ways far deeper than words ever could.

And so, to quote a favourite song:

"Reach out for her healing hands (2x)
There's a light where the darkness ends -
Touch me now and let me see again
Rock me now in your gentle healing hands."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hands that abuse...

The psychotherapist who regularly gave me knuckle crunching handshakes that hurt. What was he trying to say? It put me off going for a long time - maybe if I'd had the courage to give up earlier and find someone else sooner I might not be where I am now...