Bit o’ Honey ~ the little things that please

The little things that please . . .

Hand Craft

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There was a time when the sight of my hands like this would have horrified me.  When I was sixteen my hands were my most womanly feature.  I took pains to grow my nails half an inch long and filed them into perfect, moonlike crescents.  I fussed over cuticles with ointments ordered from my grandmother’s Avon catalog.  Manicures were one of my grandmother’s favorite pastimes, though I never remember her using that word to describe the activity, she simply “did” them.  As in, “Janie, run get the phone for me.  I’m doing my nails”.  She might spend an hour in her padded rocker with the nearby radio playing gospel, “doing them” with a metal file, then “doing them” in her favorite colors, colors that reminded me of hard candy: pearlized red, purple, or gold that shimmered when you shook the bottle, colors that matched her beaded slippers.  I stayed in the virginal spectrum: Apricot Cream, Royal Blush, Berry Sweet.  

Some time in my early twenties, after a move to Boston, I stopped doing my nails.   I’d found a job in a Middle Eastern cafe serving coffee for quarter tips.  My nails couldn’t survive the daily battle with ceramic cups and silverware, and no matter what the color chipped polish was just not pretty,.  Late nights after the last show at the Brattle Theater when moviegoers filled the cafe for final rounds of espresso and hummus, I helped with dishes.  My hands plowed through bin after bin, fearlessly scraping the uneaten food of a hundred strangers into the trash, my fingertips puckered by dishwater to a milky transluscence.  Later, as a cook in a restaurant I chopped crates of onions and peppers, deboned chickens and worked the lunch line with its open flames and artillary of knives, lifting heavy-bottomed pots of boiling pasta to drain into a colander at the the sink.   My hands, I noticed, were becoming strangely masculine.

My job as a baker ended the feminine life of my hands.  In the bakery I learned when when a bin of dough needed more time to rise, when it had overproofed by pressing my hands to its silky surface, sensing the resistance beneath.  I plunged them into the warm soft mass, broke through pockets that held the pungent breath of fermentation.  I  thought little of reaching into a 400 degree oven to capture a baking loaf, turn it over on my calloused palm and rap the bottom with my fingertips, listening for the hollow thump of doneness.  When carpal tunnel flared, I soaked my hands in ice water and wore wrist splints to bed to ease the tingling.  After five years, the brawn of my hands defied my 100 pound frame.   They’d lost their feminine allure but gained a kind of bravado. Their reddened, rugged state made me proud.   Mine were working hands now; they didn’t lie or forget.  They revealed as much about me as my face.  I was a high school drop out who fibbed of the fact on my college application, only to drop out of that too.  I’d moved from Mississippi to Boston without a degree or a plan.  My head reeled with so many choices in my twenties, but my hands had better work to do — learning, storing knowledge, getting roughed up, and growing stronger. 


Written by Janie

June 6, 2008 at 1:27 am

Posted in By hand

Tagged with , ,

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