wrinkles in time

I Love My Ugly Old Hands

Photo: Getty Images

A series investigating the effects of gravity on the female form.

My fingernails are jagged and speckled with white bumps. I’ve never been quite clear on the definition and location of cuticles, and when asked, I’m not sure whether I want them cut. I’ve got puffy knuckles, blue-green veins that bulge and narrow, and splotches of angry-looking, streaky red. Especially in wrinkles and the webs between fingers, the skin on my hands is a desert, often a cracked or faintly bleeding one. These are my ugly old hands, and I love them.

But what do my hands do all day, and how did they get this way? Early each morning, they swipe at a phone alarm, fumble for a dog’s harness, slip under the arms of a baby and lift him out of his crib. They dart under streams of hot water, sting with frequent applications of hand sanitizer, pull open the door of an office. They type, a lot. They serve dinner, zip up pajamas on an ever-moving target. In practice, my hands are rarely out in the elements, often cleaned, and tasked with activities familiar to many working parents. The wear and tear on my hands, I’d say, is somewhere between a hardworking florist and a hand model. The hands of others with my lifestyle, I’d go further to say, seem to fare better.

Years ago, my mom warned me: “You’re going to get the family hands,” she said, holding her own out to examine, turning them one way, then the other. “It’s genetic. We have ugly hands.” She was right, and my hands have grown uglier with age — their veins bigger, knuckles puffier, skin redder and more raw. I’m 32 now, and my hands look more and more like my mom’s, and like her mother’s before us.

My favorite story about my mom’s hands goes like this: She needed to bring her semi-feral cat to the vet and didn’t feel like taking the time to lure her into a humane trap. Instead, she cornered the cat, threw a towel over her, and hoped. As soon as she tried to lift the cat-towel bundle, my mom felt it — a claw piercing all the way through the skin between her thumb and forefinger. When she called the vet to say she’d have to miss the appointment, there was a hole in her hand, and the vet said if she wanted to, she could come get the wound sewn up, cat or no cat. My mom thought about it, taped a washcloth over the bloody puncture, and tried again: This time, she managed to get the cat in a crate. Then she drove herself and the cat to the vet, where one of them got stitches and a tetanus shot, and the other got her annual rabies vaccination.

All my life, I’ve seen my mom take care of others — humans and animals alike. She’s also been a forest-service ranger, a computer programmer, and a librarian. Her hands, seemingly predisposed to ugliness, are not what you’d call pretty, and perhaps they have suffered extra for all her hard work. My mom isn’t really a jewelry person, but she does wear a few rings: her diamond engagement ring, a milky-white opal sandwiched between two small sapphires, a tiny ruby on her left forefinger. One of the only beauty products I’ve seen her use is a heavy, Vaseline-like lotion, made for people whose hands are often outside.

My mom knows her hands are ugly, decorates and cares for them anyway, and doesn’t think twice before reaching out to help. Whenever I take the time to rub lotion on mine, or maybe more important, when I don’t and notice some new angle of ugly, I think of her. And when it comes time for my son to grow into his own ugly hands, I hope he’ll think of me.

I Love My Ugly Old Hands