I don't know why the sight of my mother's hands stuck out to me as we drove, but the image has been branded on my brain ever since.
She was holding the wheel firmly in the ten-and-two position, her tight grip stretching the skin smooth across the top of her hands, her mother's ring glittering on her finger. My mom was not a fancy person and she never owned any expensive jewelry, but her mother's ring -- a wide gold band with two rows of colorful birthstones representing each of her nine children -- was precious to her.
Despite the cold March air that day 30 years ago, my mother had rolled down her window. When my sister and I complained, she let us know -- much to our dismay -- that she was having a hot flash. Maybe that's why I started looking at her hands instead of at her face; I always tuned out when my mother mentioned anything to do with her "change in life."
But that day there was no avoiding it. I sat next to her in the front seat, a long drive ahead, and gazed at her hands with a mix of embarrassment and admiration. I was embarrassed by the realization that Mom was aging. Back then, as a self-conscious teenager, I was acutely aware that my mother was a lot older than most of my friends' mothers.
"You would look better if you tucked your shirt in," I would suggest, trying to update her appearance.
"Try this lipstick, Mom -- it would look really good on you." (And make you look younger, I thought to myself.)
Despite the age gap between us, we shared a close bond and I admired her tenacity. Having lost my dad in childhood, I wanted my mom to be around forever. She had worked hard for many years to provide us with life's necessities, and she did it with a gracefulness that masked her exhaustion.
As I noticed her hands gradually relaxing on the wheel that day, I thought of how much time my mother spent helping other people despite her own struggles. She was selfless and, through example, taught us to be compassionate.
During my own bouts of self-pity, when I whined about not being able to afford Jordache jeans or Frye boots, my mom would listen sympathetically, then take me along with her to help care for her destitute, handicapped, old school friend. When I complained about having to drink powdered milk and eat puffed rice cereal, she signed me up to work at the soup kitchen. When I cried about all the things wrong in the world, my mother took me to church.
In the ensuing years, there were many more days in the car when my eyes were drawn to my mother's hands, perhaps because it was easier than looking at the lines in her face. I learned to read her mood from the way she held her hands on the wheel.
When she was happy, she would tap her fingers to the beat of an oldie on the radio, her mother's ring clinking on the wheel. When she was lost in thought, she would bend her thumbs inward and rub them along the edge of the wheel. When she was angry, it was a tight grip with white knuckles and clenched fingers. Always, though, Mom kept both hands on the wheel.
I don't see my mother often anymore, as we live far apart, but when she visits, I let her drive and I still look at her hands. Her skin is thin and translucent now, her knuckles broad, her fingers slightly crooked. But her grip is loose and she taps the wheel cheerfully, reflecting how her burdens have lessened over the years.
Vivacious at 83, her time is devoted to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And despite her age, she continues to take pleasure in caring for others: elderly nuns, parishioners at church, friends in the hospital and the homeless. Her hands look more fragile than I wish, but they seem happy.
Every now and then, I catch a glimpse of my own hands on the steering wheel, and for a moment I see my mother. Our hands are similar, and I think about the traits we share. Then I remind myself of the examples she taught me: always work hard, put others before yourself and never take anything for granted.
I am reminded that life is a long road trip, and that we should remember to grip the wheel tightly when the road gets tough -- and to tap along with the music when times are good.
Patty Langer of Pine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.