The Vault: Handed Down

12 August 2013 Helen Razer

The Vault: Handed Down

Photograph by James Braund

Helen Razer, Ed#437, July 2013

“I love my hands,” my mother said to me last weekend. “I think they’re beautiful”.

We were in the local, awaiting the call for Number 81 (seafood crepe; chicken parma) when she showed me her hands and I felt a surge of great and difficult gratitude. These were the hands, after all, that had kept me from harm in my infancy. These were the hands that bathed me and fed me and gestured toward menace when I veered from the course of acceptable adolescence. These were the hands that, even now, moved to help me; they had cleaned my house all weekend and had dipped into a wallet – itself filled by an adult life of manual labour – to pay for my parma.

Which was, incidentally, delicious.

“I love my hands,” she said. “I think they’re beautiful.”

Now, this statement may not seem extraordinary at first blush, but when one thinks about its lack of feminine humility, it begins to emerge as a little odd. Women do not customarily talk about their beauty; it’s not deemed ladylike to do so. If women talk about their beauty at all, they can only do so in wretched understatement. “I am not ugly.” “I wouldn’t be kicked out of bed.” “I’ll do.”

Now, I am not one of those who believe in a ‘celebration’ of beauty. Nor is my mother. It is not my entitlement to ‘feel beautiful’ anymore than it is my entitlement to feel gifted of any other extraordinary quality. We live in a perverse era where a talk-show intensity of happiness and self-love is viewed as a desirable goal and neither my mother nor I have any truck with that kind of manure.

Every woman has the right to feel beautiful is the sort of thing one might hear from both advertisements for face cream and from the popular feminisms these face creams fund. No. Every woman does not have the ‘right’ to feel beautiful. Feeling beautiful is not a human ‘right’; nor is it particularly sane to expect to feel a sense of personal physical beauty for prolonged periods. And it is, I’d venture, this unreasonable idea that we must ‘feel’ unstintingly beautiful that makes us feel its opposite so often. Which is to say, when we normalise the extraordinary, we’re bound to fall in a heap.

Looking at her hands, though, my mother kept the extraordinary in its place and allowed herself a rare, “I love my hands. I think they’re beautiful”.

I looked at my mother’s hands and placed mine beside them and felt first that jolt of genealogical familiarity – which never gets old despite being the oldest thing in the world. First, I noticed our similarities and then I noticed our differences.

Our hands, very clearly, are wrought from the same strand of DNA, but our life experiences, etched on our hands, are so very different. I have not raised a child nor have I done much – to be honest – in the way of manual labour. My sun-safe hands are untroubled by work and weather and they have never truly served the interests of another. I don’t think a keyboard really counts as a medium of hard slog. I have the hands of what we now call a ‘knowledge worker’. I have lovely 21st century, First World hands.

But my mother’s beautiful hands belong to the 20th century. They are flecked with colour and their digits have been reshaped by years of work. In their embrace, I have grown to be a relatively sane and prosperous grown‑up and in their folds, I see the remains of a social organisation whose passing we can both celebrate and mourn.

In these tough, beautiful hands, I see the past and how it has shaped me and I wonder – very selfishly – if anyone will ever look at my hands with such gratitude.

Helen Razer is a Big Issue columnist. You can follow her on Twitter @HelenRazer.