My Mother's Hands
Recycled, in-progress essay
My mother spent more than 30 years delivering mail for the United States Postal Service. It was a good job, once, but bureaucracy and longevity at anything physical can wear a person down. My mother also has severe rheumatoid arthritis. She was diagnosed a few years ago, and until then had attributed her pain to decades of rifling through grocery flyers and clutching 4-⅛ by 9-½s. A single X-ray disabused her of that assumption: the doctor was floored by the amount of joint damage visible in her cramped fingers.
Since her diagnosis, I’ve wondered if I might share her autoimmune disease. Genetics can play a role in its development, and through my mother’s experience I’ve come to recognize a pattern of symptoms in myself. Like her hands, mine are big with long fingers, and weak. I struggle to open jars, fail at thumb wars, and can’t unfurl my hands after carrying grocery bags. Lately I’ve woken up with her storied clenched fist, the one where you need your other hand to pry your fingers open away from your palm. My hands, it turns out, don’t just look like my mother’s; they function like them, too.
Before the post office, my mother worked in textile mills. For a few years, she even owned her own. The mill, like carrying mail, was dexterous work. Fine-handed work. Exhausting work. The work I do is also precise, but it’s different. My job is clicking keys on a keyboard, over and over. Sitting in a chair, staring at a computer. Mild physical occupational hazards. At one point, I thought I might be developing carpal tunnel, like how my mother thought delivering mail was causing her hands to arch like spiders.
There’s a quote by the poet Ocean Vuong from the 2019 Asian American Literature Festival, about how the parents of his generation who worked in nail salons kept their heads down so his generation could keep their heads up. Service work in service of their children becoming anything they wanted to be. My mother is not an immigrant, but her father was, and he taught her the meaning of work. As a child he and his family of 17 lived off killing animals, chopping wood, and foraging for food. My mother took her first job at 8 years old, delivering newspapers around the village from her bicycle. She didn’t stop working for the next five decades.
As an adult, I would think of this—my mother keeping her head down—when she was too tired to talk on the phone. How when I was a kid, she always took on overtime so she could send me to gymnastics class, even though I didn’t try hard because I was afraid of getting hurt. How she worked six days a week for years while the financially and emotionally abusive man she married, my stepfather, drained their joint bank account. How she wondered why we could never save up, why her work wasn’t enough.
Still, she kept going. These are generational sacrifices. The kind of work that gives heft to the word “work,” that takes a toll on the spirit and renders the body shredded evidence of labor. A wear-and-tear homage to years of mandatory service to capitalism.
My mother felt bad that she couldn’t braid my hair when I was young.
Sometimes I wonder whether my pain derives from rheumatoid arthritis or empathy. My mother and I have shared notable physical connections before, like feeling each other’s PMS symptoms despite being 3,000 miles apart. When I crave spaghetti or chocolate, so does she. My stepfather used to tell us to “cut the cord,” suggesting our physical connection wasn’t severed at my birth.
Does the body recognize sacrifice? Does guilt have a materiality? Does my pain echo hers as a kind of gratitude? For now, the source doesn’t really matter; I’m young, I can function, and I don’t need a diagnosis to tell me my joints are inflamed, that I’m running a low-grade fever, that I’m too tired to get off the couch. I know these things to be true; I feel them in my body. Just as I know and feel all that was lifted, sweated through, torn—the work of my mother’s hands—so I could be here, now, typing this with aching knuckles.